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The no-fly list: not so exclusive after all

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The Associated Press reports that the number of people on the secret no-fly list has doubled in the past year. The list jumped from 10,000 known or suspected terrorists a year ago to 21,000, with almost all of them being from foreign countries and 500 being American.

After the failed bombing attempt on Christmas 2009 by the so-called “underwear bomber,” the government lowered the standards for people being placed on the no-fly list, then scoured files for anyone who qualified for the lower standards.

The government won’t release who is on the list or why they are on it. The doubling of the number of listed individuals comes at a time when many of al-Qaida’s senior members have been killed or captured. The government maintains that the threat to the U.S. goes beyond those involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said, “Both U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities and foreign services continue to identify people who want to cause us harm, particularly in the U.S. and particularly as it relates to aviation.”

The “underwear bomber” attempt prompted major changed in how the U.S. assembles its terror watch list. Government agencies reviewed their files, finding people who should have been on the watch list and even adding more who met the new standards in order to close security gaps. One significant new standard articulates that a person doesn’t have to be only a threat to aviation to be put on the list, meaning people who are considered a broader threat to domestic or international security or attended a terror training camp are included as well.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the government on behalf of Americans who believe they are on the no-fly list and have been unable to travel by air. Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney working for the ACLU’s national security project said: “The news that the list is growing tells us that more people’s rights are being violated… It’s a secret list, and the government puts people on it without any explanation. Citizens have been stranded abroad.”

The no-fly list is constantly reviewed and changed. Each day there are around 1,000 changes made to the list, mostly mere updates of individuals’ information. However, getting off the no-fly list can be quite the ordeal as Gadier Abbas now knows. He describes the security bureaucracy “as Kafkaesque, a labyrinthine maze of overlapping agencies, all of which refuse to provide answers unless they are threatened with legal action.”

Government lawyers have gone so far as to argue that placing someone on the no-fly list does not infringe upon their constitutional rights because it only restricts one form of travel. They can can always take a boat or drive, for example. Government lawyers have also argued, “Neither Plaintiff nor any other American citizen has either a right to international travel or a right to travel by airplane.”

This is not the first time that the no-fly list has swelled to such high numbers. In 2004 the list swelled to 20,000 individuals and even included the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. According to the Pistole, the number of travellers being mistaken for terrorists has decreased significantly since the government took over checking the list from the airlines. But the list is unlikely to shrink, even with al-Qaida’s core leadership largely defeated.

For a graphic explaining how someone gets put on the no-fly list, click here.


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