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Time to Trash the Terrorist Watch List, a Police-State Frankenstein Gone Off the Rails

Photograph Source: Dave Newman – CC BY 2.0

I have something in common with some of the brownshirt thugs who assaulted the Capitol, some reportedly intent on kidnapping and/or killing congressional leaders and members like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader and  presumptive Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vice President Mike Pence. 

No, I’m not a brownshirt fascist. I’m a politically leftist professional journalist, a former Business Week correspondent, winner of a 2019 “Izzy” award for Outstanding Independent Journalism, a Graduate of the Columbia Grad School of Journalism and a two-time Fulbright Scholar in Shanghai and Taiwan. 

What I have in common with some of the thugs who engaged in an act of insurrection or sedition in a violent assault on Congress on Jan. 6 that led to the deaths of five people and brought Congress to a halt and had its members holed up in safe rooms in the Capitol basement is that like reportedly dozens of these white nationalist fascists, I am and have since at least March 2019, been on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List.

We Americans (unless we’re Muslim or have Arabic names) don’t hear much about that Watch List normally unless there’s a plane hijacking or a terror bombing, but the FBI, during a federal court case last year disclosed in the course of discovery that the list (three lists, actually including a “No Fly List” of people who are banned for boarding aircraft), established in the wake of the 9-11 attack in September 2001, currently contains over a million names. Most of these are not rightist terrorists or journalists. They are people with Muslim or Arab-sounding names, often very common names like Muhammad or Jamil, who have the misfortune of owning the same name as someone who may have committed or knows someone who, or someone who knows someone who might hang around someone who is even remotely linked to a terrorist. 

We’re learning now that according to the FBI, a number of the people who participated and perhaps led or helped organize the invasion and assault on Congress were on its Terrorist Watch List.  Some apparently were contacted at their homes by federal agents and advised not to attend the June 6 White House rally and the subsequent protest at and planned assault on the halls of Congress. Some, we’re told, took the warning and stayed away. Others ignored the visits and went anyway. Others on the list weren’t contacted and showed up to engage in insurrection and mayhem. 

That should raise some flags. If the list is supposed to be composed of people who “pose a threat of terrorism” as claimed by the FBI, then why were such people on it allowed to get even close to the Capitol building?  As for those who were visited by agents, what were they actually told?  Was it a threat that if they went they would be arrested? Was it not to bother going to the airport because they’d not be allowed to board a plane? Were they told that if they, as many did, intended to check weapons, including semi-automatic weapons, on the flights they were planning to take to DC, they would be barred from doing so?  Apparently not. 

So what is the point of this vast invasive and darkly secret (the government will not confirm if you are on the list or how your name would have been put there) program of labeling people potential or suspected terrorists? 

Let me make this clear:  I am not a terrorist. I don’t know any terrorists or anyone who knows or is in any way linked by one, two, three or more degrees of separation to some terrorist or even suspected terrorist. I have a pretty clean record. The only time I was ever arrested was in Washington DC in 1967, when I was 18 and joined the October 27 March on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War and ended up busted on the mall of the Pentagon, got beaten and bussed with 700 other protesters to Occoquan Federal Prison in Virginia, and after eventually getting arraigned and pleading “no contest” to the charge of misdemeanor trespass, was set free with a fine of $25 and a five-day suspended sentence.   That’s my complete rap sheet.  (Okay, five years earlier at 13, with two junior high friends I did competitively steal an item from Phil’s 5 and 10 across from the school, but I confessed when the resident state cop called my dad and he confronted me, and later tearfully returned the sable paintbrush I had hoisted to Phil, with no charges pressed.)

Yet in the spring of 2019, just three months after the Nation magazine published a cover story I wrote exposing the Pentagon for having a 20-year history of over $21 trillion dollars in accounting fraud and of stonewalling repeated Congressional mandates to develop an auditable budget, I found myself suddenly on the Terrorist Watch List.  I learned that all it takes to“qualify” for inclusion on the list is for a federal agency — any federal agency — to report one to the FBI as a terror suspect. The FBI under its own guidelines is supposed to vet what it terms those “nominations” to the list .But in the Virginia federal court case brought by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on behalf of Muslim victims of the list, which concluded on Sept. 5 2019 with the judge finding the Watch List unconstitutional,  the Bureau admitted that it rarely vets any of those accusations and just adds the person to the endlessly expanding list (with no notice given). 

Like most on that list, I was not put on the most “elite” No-Fly List. I know this because I was allowed to fly. I was however harassed on both flights — a March one to Vienna accompanying my early-keyboard musician wife who was performing on Austrian State Radio a concert of music by Jewish and communist composer victims of the Nazis who had been killed or fled Vienna before WWII, and one a trip with a film crew to Cambridge, UK on a documentary project about a young Manhattan Project scientist who in ’44-’45 volunteered plans for the plutonium bomb to the USSR to prevent a feared US monopoly on the bomb after the war. On both trips, I was curiously unable to get boarding passes online for either the outbound or return flights in the 24 hours before flight-time. My wife could, on the first flight, and my videographer son could on the second, but not me. I instead got a message saying I had to pick up my passes at the check-in counter at the airport. 

On the return journey from Vienna, while changing planes at London Heathrow, my boarding pass, printed at check-in at the Vienna airport, was rejected at a checkpoint between terminals, and I was instructed to get a new one printed for the transatlantic leg home. After it was printed, it was hand stamped in red ink with the words:  “ICE Security.”  Asked why, the agent told me “Your country’s Homeland Security Department has you on a watch list.”  Later, as we ate lunch in the terminal’s main lobby while waiting for our gate to be listed, my name was called out on the  terminal intercom, ordering me to go to the gate for a “special security check.”  We headed off with our carry-on bags and on reaching the gate and giving my name, I was directed down a flight of stairs to a lower deck with two daunting-looking metal surgical desks behind which stood two British security officials. I was instructed to put my bag and my computer bag with the computer and cell phone out one of the tables. These were all passed over by an electronic device, which I was told was to detect explosives. I asked why I, a 71-year-old journalist and US citizen with no criminal record, was being checked for a bomb. I was told, “We do not think you are a terrorist sir. Your government is ordering us to do this.”  He checked my hands for explosives and then told me I and my wife were free to board the plane early. 

At that point my wife, who understandably fearing I might be spirited away, had insisted on accompanying me as I was dispatched downstairs for the check, asked, “How come you’re not checking my luggage? It looks the same as my husband’s.”   

The reply was, “We weren’t asked to check you or your luggage ma’am. Just your husband’s.” 

I said, “Oh, I get it. I’m a journalist, and my government doesn’t like journalists.”  To that, the security officer responded, “I know your country has some problems, sir. Please board the plane.” 

The second flight was a similar experience. After getting to Heathrow early, forewarned by the same requirement to get my boarding pass at the check-in counter with its typically long line, I got my boarding passes printed to DC and thence onward via a local flight to Newark, and noted that the transatlantic flight pass had “SSSS” in bold letters printed on it. Asking the clerk what that meant, I was informed, “You are on a security risk list sir.”

This time it was when my son and I reached our gate that we were paged by the boarding counter airline clerk before the plane began loading.  We were told to come with our bags around behind the desk and to go through a door there, where we encountered the same scene: two steel tables and two security officials. They told me and my adopted Chinese son to put our bags on the table and to remove our electronics equipment. I said, “Hold on. I know I have to have my bags inspected because I have the four SSSS’s stamped on my pass, but my son’s pass isn’t stamped. He doesn’t need to be checked.”  To my amazement, the security official said, “Oh, your son can sit over here (he motioned to a row of chairs) and can wait for you to be checked.”  Jed walked over with his identical carry-on bag and his bag of film equipment and watched. 

On this second trip my bags simply got a perfunctory cloth wipe of their zippers, as did my computer and cell phone as well as my hands. Again I learned they were checking for explosives. I was cleared to go, but, following my wife’s example,  I couldn’t resist asking again, “How do you know my son’s suitcase doesn’t have the bomb? Why aren’t you checking his bags?”   The security official, in a worldweary voice, said, “Sir, we were only instructed to check you and your bags. We don’t think you are a terrorist. Please just board the plane.”

Clearly this Watch List thing is a bad joke, but it’s not a funny one. One of the other things revealed by the FBI at the Virginia trial  is that the entire contents of the Watch List — those unvetted million names of people — are instantly accessible to all police agencies in the US, federal, state and local. This means that if I get stopped by a cop for speeding or some minor driving issue like a missing tail light or a failure to signal a lane turn, and if that cop were to run a make on me, my name would pop of as being on the Terrorist Watch List. Suddenly a simple traffic stop could escalate dramatically into something much more frightening and perhaps fatal, even with me being white (I do have a beard!). 

The district court’s ruling is being appealed by the Trump administration to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, with arguments coming up later this month and a ruling expected later this year.  Meanwhile, with the help of the Ruthersford Institute, I have obtained pro bono counsel for a lawsuit of my own against my inclusion on the list. My intention is not just of getting taken off it, but to seek discovery of the reason I was placed on it, and the identity of the person and agency that “nominated” me for inclusion…which I suspect will turn out to be the Pentagon. 

My attorney, Baruch Weiss, white collar partner in the Arnold & Porter law firm in Washington, was from 2003-2006 acting general counsel and later associate general counsel of the new Department of Homeland Security, so he has a good understanding for the motivation in creating the list, and a good understanding of how it has metastasized into something quite different. We are waiting for a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court on the government’s appeal. If the district court ruling finding the list to be unconstitutional on the grounds of its having no constitutionally acceptable basis for inclusion and no constitutionally acceptable process for appealing and getting one’s name removed, we will file in federal court in Richmond. If the government is upheld, we will file my case in a federal district court in Philadelphia in the Third Circuit, hoping to get a good ruling and to have it upheld on appeal, which would tee  up a likely hearing at the US Supreme Court, which typically likes to resolve conflicting Appellate precedents. 

The lead attorney who will serve as the House’s impeachment manager in prosecuting the case of soon-to-be ex-President Trump in his Senate Trial is Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA). Coincidentally she is my congressional representative.  When I contacted her office while writing an article for the Nation magazine about my travel experience in 2019 and my discovery that I am on the Terrorist Watch List, she would not agree to be interviewed, and offered no help from her office in getting my name off that list.  When Rep. Dean is done prosecuting the case, and returns to her seat on the House Judiciary Committee, where significantly she also serves on the subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security and the subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties, I hope she exhibits more interest and will call for and hold hearings into this crazy, invasive, dangerous, Constitutionally fraught and apparently also useless Watch List.

Recent events on June 6 prove that the Watch List was ineffective when it came to preventing near terrorist disaster — the reportedly intended kidnapping and/or murder of top elected officials and the astonishing assault and shutdown of the US Congress along with five fatalities including a Capitol Police officer by a mob of white nationalist fascists, all invited and incited by our terrorist-in-chief (who is not on the list but should be!).  Any list that has a million names of “suspected terrorists” is a caricature of a police state run amok. Any suspect list that includes a nonviolent professional journalist with no criminal record like me on it, along with the names of hundreds of thousands of other wrongly and anonymously accused foreigners and Americans, is clearly a case of an incipient police state already gone off the rails. 

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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