"The news that the list is growing tells us that more people's rights are being violated," said Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney working for the ACLU's national security project. "It's a secret list, and the government puts people on it without any explanation. Citizens have been stranded abroad."
The government will not tell people whether they're on the list or why they're on it, making it impossible for people to defend themselves, Choudhury said. People who complain that they're unfairly on the no-fly list can submit a letter to the Homeland Security Department, but the only way they'll know if they're still on the list is to try to fly again, she said.
While the list is secret, it is subject to continuous review to ensure that the right people are on it and that the ones who shouldn't be on it are removed, said Martin Reardon, former chief of the Terrorist Screening Operations center and now a vice president with the Soufan Group. If a person is nominated to be on the no-fly list, but there is insufficient information to justify it, the Terrorist Screening Center downgrades the person to a different list, he said.
"You can't just say: 'Here's a name. Put him on the list.' You've got to have articulable facts," Reardon said.
On average, there are 1,000 changes to the government's watch lists each day, most of which involve adding new information about someone on the list.
The no-fly list has swelled to 20,000 people before, such as in 2004. At the time, people like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy were getting stopped before flying — causing constant angst and aggravation for innocent travelers. But much has changed since then.
While thousands more people are on the list, instances of travelers being mistaken for terrorists are down significantly since the government — not the airlines — became responsible for checking the list, Pistole said. Travelers must now provide their full name, birthdate and gender when purchasing an airline ticket so the government can screen them against the terror watch list.
But with the nature of the terrorism threat, it's not likely that the list will dwindle, even as al-Qaida's core leadership is defeated, Reardon said.
"I would argue that even if (al-Qaida) as we know it ceased to exist as of tomorrow, other terrorist organizations or lone wolves with both the intent and capability of carrying out attacks against the U.S. would fill the void," Reardon said. "The consolidated terrorist watch list exists for that very reason."
Once they are identified and placed on the list, he said, "We have a much greater chance of keeping them from entering the country."
Follow Eileen Sullivan on Twitter at esullivanap. AP Interactive: hosted.ap.org/interactives/2012/no-fly-list/
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