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Review: 'No-fly list' lacks rules, procedures

Watch list meant to stop terrorists from flying is under scrutiny

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Transportation Security Administration
Justice and Rights
Civil Rights

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The "no-fly" watch list -- billed as a post-9/11 weapon in the United States' war on terror -- lacks guidance on adding and deleting names and a method of consolidating more than a dozen lists maintained by various government agencies, a review of government records revealed.

CNN reached those conclusions after receiving more than 300 pages of Transportation Security Administration documents, including memos and interagency e-mail.

TSA and the FBI released the documents Friday, and the American Civil Liberties Union gave them to CNN.

Airlines and security agencies use the watch list to bar suspected terrorists from flying on airliners. The ACLU says the list could wrongly stop some people from flying.

One TSA memorandum shows that, as late as last year, the agency still was trying to "finalize a watch list policy."

The documents show "a tremendous amount of confusion among federal officials and government people who implement these watch lists," said Alan Schlosser, legal director for the ACLU of Northern California. That organization filed a Freedom of Information Act petition for the documents' release.

Dozens of memos within the documents buttress that claim. For example, an interagency e-mail dated January 2003 inquires about the status of a man frequently flagged at airports "because his name is identical to someone on the no-fly list."

The e-mail later states, "we were working the issue in hopes the watch list working group would come up with a silver bullet" to solve the problem.

According to a July 2002 e-mail about a similar situation, "this is repeated across the country with the more common names, both in Arabic and in English." The e-mail warns, however, "it is difficult to be too cautious."

A TSA document on use of the watch list states, "these principles [used to place an individual on the no-fly list] are necessarily subjective, providing no 'hard and fast' rules."

"Many people from Cat Stevens on back, some of those people are stopped and on the list because their name is similar to other names on the list," said Schlosser, referring to the name formerly used by Yusuf Islam, who was a pop singer in the 1970s. "People are not able to get off the list, and their name is their name."

The ACLU originally filed a lawsuit on behalf of two antiwar activists, Rebecca Gordon and Jan Adams, whose names were on the watch list.

The FBI and TSA officials told CNN they could not comment because the papers are part of pending litigation.

CNN was not able to reach the Justice Department for comment.

"The government still has not disclosed or given us a real sense of whether First Amendment activities is a reason why someone might get on the watch list," Schlosser said.

Last week, the Transportation Security Administration's inspector general's report criticized the organization for not taking the lead in consolidating more than 12 terrorist watch lists that exist within various federal government agencies.

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