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How Many Watch Lists Fit on the Head of a Pin?

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Posted on Apr 7, 2014

Photo by wwarby (CC BY 2.0)

By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

At that point, intelligence agencies commonly to refuse to share more, claiming that no one at State has the proper clearances and that department should just trust their decision to label someone a bad guy and refuse to issue, or pro-actively revoke, a visa. If, on the other hand, information is shared, it is often done on paper by courier. In other words, a guy shows up at State with a bundle of documents, waits while someone reviews them, and then spirits them back to the CIA, the FBI, or elsewhere. That way, the intelligence agencies, always distrustful of State, are assured that nothing will be leaked or inadvertently disclosed.

In cases where no more information is available, or what is available is inconclusive, the State Department might allow the visa application to pend indefinitely under the heading “administrative processing,” or simply “prudentially” revoke or not issue the visa. No one wants to risk approving a visa for the next 9/11 terrorist, even if it’s pretty obvious that the applicant is nothing of the sort.

This undoubtedly is what happened to Ibrahim. Though the details remain classified, State certainly didn’t possess super secret information on her unavailable to other law enforcement or intelligence outfits. Some official surely decided to take no chances and revoked her visa “prudentially” based on the outdated information still lodged in CLASS.

Not CLASS Alone

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Ibrahim’s case also reveals just how many secret databases of various sorts exist in Washington. Here’s how a name (your name?) gets added to one of those databases, and how it then populates other lists around the world.

A name is nominated for the no-fly list by one of hundreds of thousands of government officials: an FBI agent, a CIA analyst, a State Department visa officer. Each nominating agency has its own criteria, standards, and approval processes, some—as with the FBI in Ibrahim’s case—apparently pretty sloppy.

The nominated name is then sent to the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) at a classified location in suburban Northern Virginia. TSC is a multi-agency outfit administered by the FBI and staffed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and all of the Intelligence Community.

Once a name is approved by the TSC (the process is classified), it will automatically be entered into a number of databases, possibly including but not necessarily limited to:

*the Department of Homeland Security’s no-fly list;

*that same department’s selectee list that ensures chosen individuals will be subject to additional airport screening;

*the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS, including CLASS-Visa for foreigners and CLASS-Passport for U.S. Citizens);

*the Department of Homeland Security’s TECS (a successor to the Treasury Enforcement Communications System), which is used in part by customs officials, as well as its Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS), used by immigration officials;

*the Known and Suspected Terrorist File (KSTF, previously known as the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File);

*TUSCAN, a database maintained by Canada;

*TACTICS, a database maintained by Australia;

*and finally, an unknown number of other law enforcement and intelligence agency databases, as well as those of other foreign intelligence services with which information may be shared.

As Ibrahim discovered, once a name is selected, it travels deep and far into both U.S. and foreign databases. If one clears one’s name from one database, there are many others out there waiting. Even a comprehensive victory in one nation’s courts may not affect the records of a third country. And absent frequent travel, a person may never even know which countries have him or her on their lists, thanks to the United States.

Once she learned that her student visa had been revoked in Malaysia, Ibrahim sued again, asking that the State Department reissue it. The government successfully blocked this suit, citing a long-established precedent that visa matters are essentially an administrative function and so not subject to judicial review.

A court did scold State for failing to notify Ibrahim of her right to seek a waiver, as it was required to do by law. To the extent that Ibrahim’s case has any life left in it, her next step would be to return to the Department of Justice’s bailiwick and apply for a waiver of the revocation the State Department made based on data given to it by the DOJ that both outfits know was struck down by a court. It’s that “simple.” Meanwhile, she cannot return to the U.S.

Nothing to Hide?

A common trope for those considering the way the National Security Agency spies on almost everyone everywhere all the time is that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. If your cell phone conversations are chit-chats with mom and your emails tend toward forwards of cute cat videos, why should you care if the NSA or anyone else is snooping?

Ask Rahinah Ibrahim about that. She did nothing wrong and so should have had nothing to fear. She even has a court decision declaring that she never was nor is a threat to the United States, yet she remains outside America’s borders. Her mistaken placement on the no-fly list plunged her head first into a nightmarish world that would have been all too recognizable to Franz Kafka. It is a world run by people willing to ignore reality to service their bureaucratic imperatives and whose multiplying lists are largely beyond the reach of the law.

Sad as it may be, the Ibrahim case is a fairly benign example of ordinary Washington practices in the post-9/11 era. Ibrahim is going about her life at peace in Malaysia. Her tangle with the United States seems to have been more a matter of bureaucratic screw-ups than anything else. No one sought to actively destroy her. She was not tortured in a CIA black site, nor left for years in a cage at Guantanamo. Her case is generally seen as, at worst, another ugly stain on the white wall we imagine we are as a nation.

But the watch lists are there. The tools are in place. And one thing is clear: no one is guarding the guards. You never know whose name just went on a list. Maybe yours?

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. His latest book, a novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is now available.

[Note to Readers: As with so many TomDispatch articles, you can fact-check this one by reviewing the same sources I drew from via links in the piece. Since many of the facts of Ibrahim’s case come from her suit against the Department of Homeland Security, however, I have limited the repetition of that link for ease of reading.  You can find it by clicking here.]

Copyright 2014 Peter Van Buren


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