US civil rights groups call for end to 'illegal expansion' of travel watchlist
US civil rights groups are calling on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Amtrak to abandon an"illegal expansion" of a secret government watchlist to screen passengers.
This practice has been challenged over the years by Council on American-Islamic Relations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights organisations, particularly in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Now, there are plans to expand the watchlist to include Amtrak, the national rail carrier, which is used in 46 states in the United States, often for daily commuting. CAIR has warned it will file a lawsuit if the expansion of the watchlist moves forward.
Under the current practices, passengers can be denied transportation merely by being on the list, which comprises around a million people, the majority of whom are Muslims.
"It's unclear why Amtrak is suddenly using the federal terrorist watchlist to screen passengers," CAIR deputy director Edward Mitchell told The New Arab, noting that he was surprised after learning about it from a Hearst investigative report.
On its own website, the Department of Homeland Security announced it in December.
Despite the fact that the watchlist expansion is still in its early stages and is at this point only being used to research past travellers but not new ones, Mitchell nevertheless finds the news troubling.
"The federal terrorist watchlist is deeply flawed," he said. "If Muslims are already experiencing unjustified delays at airports, they'll be experiencing the same delays with rail travel."
"We're still learning more. We don't have a full grasp of what's going on," he added.
In response to the news, Hina Shamsi, Director of ACLU's National Security Project said in a statement, "This request raises significant civil liberties and rights concerns. From our decades of work on the watchlisting system, we know it’s a due process nightmare and prone to error."
Noting the bias of the policy, she further said, "The standards the government uses to place people on its massive master watchlist are vague, overbroad, and based on secret evidence. People on the watchlist are disproportionately people of colour or immigrants and can be wrongly stigmatized as terrorism suspects with no notice of their placement on the list or a meaningful opportunity to challenge it. Amtrak's request should be a non-starter and it needs to reverse course."