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Federal judge rules the terrorism watch list unconstitutional

There are approximately 1.16 million people labeled "known or suspected terrorists" on the FBI's terrorism watch list. While most of them are from foreign countries, about 4,600 people on the list as of 2017 were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents -- and many of them are completely innocent.

The terrorism watch list, officially called the Terrorist Screening Database, is much larger than the so-called "no fly list," but people included in the database experience significant harms. For example, they are often handcuffed at border crossings or forced to endure invasive secondary searches at airports.

Yet, according to a federal judge who recently ruled the watch list unconstitutional, the database is riddled with errors. Many people who have actually committed terrorist acts are left out, while others are included based on innocent behavior that has been misconstrued. And, there is no appeal process by which you can clear your name, which violates the due process rights of those on the list.

Indeed, the government doesn't even contend that the plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit were properly placed on the list. It admits that many innocent people are on the list. Instead, it argued that whatever difficulties suffered by innocent people who are included in the database, they outweighed by the need for such a database. The federal judge disagreed.

After years of denial, government admits extent of watch list use

Since 2016, when the lawsuit was filed by about two dozen Muslim-American citizens and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there have been several interesting revelations. For one, the government revealed, after years of denials, that the watch list is shared with more than 500 private entities. Previously, it had maintained that only law enforcement agencies and foreign governments were granted access.

The private entities were described as "law enforcement adjacent" and do include groups like university police forces and security forces at other private organizations such as hospitals and railroads. However, the government acknowledged that it shared the watch list with others, including some animal welfare organizations, for example.

The way forward is unclear

The federal judge wrote that the civil rights issues surrounding the terrorism watch list are unsettled law. He has asked for the government and the plaintiffs to submit additional briefs about what the remedy should be.

The plaintiffs consider the list completely useless for preventing terrorism, filled as it is with improper inclusions and exclusions. They are hoping the judge will severely curtail its use, if not scrap the database altogether.

"Innocent people should be beyond the reach of the watchlist system," said an attorney for the plaintiffs. "We think that's what the Constitution requires."

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