Saturday, June 19, 2010

Who watches the watch list?

Erich Scherfen served in the Army Infantry for 13 years as a helicopter pilot, but a year after he traded his guns for a commercial airline pilot badge, he found himself on the opposite side of national security.

For reasons that are still unclear to him, Scherfen, a Gulf War veteran and a Muslim, was added to the terror watch listed in April of 2008.

"It was a shock," he told "To think I had flown helicopters loaded with rockets at one time for the U.S., and then was listed."

The terror watch list was designed to prevent attacks by keeping a close watch on suspected terrorists. But some critics question how well it is being managed by intelligence officials, arguing it has too many "false positives" like Scherfen.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said federal agents are biased toward adding people to the list and against removing those who are later found to have been included mistakenly.

"Nobody ever lost a job from putting someone on the list — even if they're innocent," he said. "But God forbid you don't put someone on the list and they are guilty. You could lose your job."

An FBI official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the list is constantly updated to remove false positives.

"[People on the list] are constantly reviewed on a day-to-day basis to make sure the right people are watch-listed," said the official, who works as a national security officer at TSC. "There's no benefit to watch-listing innocent people."

FBI Terrorist Screening Center officials have argued that the watch list "is one of the most affective counterterrorist tools for the U.S. government."

In an address before the House Judiciary Committee in March, TSC Director Timothy Healy said the center and watch list protect "the American public from terrorist threats while simultaneously protecting privacy and safeguarding civil liberties."

It's hard to know how effective the program is due to the secrecy around it.

A 2009 audit by the Inspector General found the nomination process flawed, saying the FBI did not "consistently update or remove watch list records when appropriate."

Auditors found that 35 percent of the names and identities were associated with outdated FBI codes or were totally unrelated to terrorism and that false positives were often not removed until months later.

The audit also criticized "non-investigative" nominations, where agents put any name or identity they believe is a threat to national security on the list without opening an investigation.

The Inspector General said the procedure was too "vague" with "weak or nonexistent" controls. These "non-investigative subjects," it said, weren't subjected to adequate review and were rarely examined for potential removal from the list.

Calabrese said those watch-listed would certainly find it difficult to get a public job working for the government or any government-paid position that requires a background check.

In Scherfen's case, he didn't lose his job, but he almost did. He was suspended without pay by his employer, Colgan Air Inc., but was later reinstated after Scherfen's lawyers threatened a lawsuit.

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