58°F
weather icon Partly Cloudy

US judge: Terror watchlist violates constitutional rights

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The government’s watchlist of more than 1 million people identified as “known or suspected terrorists” violates the constitutional rights of those placed on it, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga grants summary judgment to nearly two dozen Muslim U.S. citizens who had challenged the watchlist with the help of a Muslim civil-rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

But the judge is seeking additional legal briefs before deciding what remedy to impose.

The plaintiffs said they were wrongly placed on the list and that the government’s process for adding names is overbroad and riddled with errors.

The watchlist is disseminated to a variety of governmental departments, foreign governments and police agencies.

The FBI declined comment on the ruling Wednesday. In court, the FBI’s lawyers argued that the difficulties suffered by the plaintiffs pale in comparison to the government’s interests in combatting terrorism.

Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the ruling a victory. He said he will be asking the judge to severely curtail how the government compiles and uses its list.

“Innocent people should be beyond the reach of the watchlist system,” Abbas said. “We think that’s what the Constitution requires.”

Abbas said that while there has been significant litigation over the no-fly list, which forced the government to improve the process for people seeking to clear their name from the list, he said Trenga’s ruling is the first to broadly attack the government’s use of the watchlist. Trenga also wrote in his 31-page ruling that the case “presents unsettled issues.”

Ultimately, Trenga ruled that the travel difficulties faced by plaintiffs — who say they were handcuffed at border crossings and frequently subjected to invasive secondary searches at airports — are significant, and that they have a right to due process when their constitutional rights are infringed.

He also said the concerns about erroneous placement on the list are legitimate.

“There is no evidence, or contention, that any of these plaintiffs satisfy the definition of a ‘known terrorist,” Trenga wrote. And the alternate standard for placement — that of a “suspected terrorist” — can easily be triggered by innocent conduct that is misconstrued, he said.

The watchlist, also known as the Terrorist Screening Database, is maintained by the FBI and shared with a variety of federal agencies. Customs officers have access to the list to check people coming into the country at border crossings, and aviation officials use the database to help form the no-fly list, which is a much smaller subset of the broader watchlist.

The watchlist has grown significantly over the years. As of June 2017, approximately 1.16 million people were included on the watchlist, according to government documents filed in the lawsuit. In 2013, the number was only 680,000. The vast majority are foreigners, but according to the government, there are roughly 4,600 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents on the watchlist as of 2017.

Abbas argued at a court hearing earlier this year that the intrusions imposed on those listed are all for naught and that the list is worthless in terms of preventing terrorism. He noted that Omar Mateen, the man who shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, was at one time on the list but was later removed from it. Others who have committed terrorist acts have never even been included on the watchlist.

The suit was filed in 2016, and has exposed previously unknown details about the list and how it is disseminated. In particular, government lawyers acknowledged after years of denials that more than 500 private entities are given access to the list. Government lawyers describe those private agencies as “law enforcement adjacent” and include university police forces, and security forces and hospitals, railroads and even animal-welfare organizations.

Abbas said the revelations about the government’s actions have come after years of dismissive responses from government officials who accused CAIR and others of paranoia, and that people are now paying more attention to the civil-rights implications of watchlisting.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives adopted a proposal from Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar that would force President Donald Trump’s administration to disclose details about how it shares the watchlist with foreign countries.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
Joe Biden at the national hospitality workers union.
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to members of the national hospitality workers union during UNITE HERE's town hall on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019 at Culinary Union Hall in Las Vegas. @bizutesfaye
Elizabeth Warren at Culinary Union
Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Culinary Union town hall in Las Vegas on Dec. 9, 2019.
Secretary of Education visits Henderson school
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited students at Pinecrest Academy in Henderson to talk about college planning on Dec. 4, 2019. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trump dropped from Terry Fator’s show on Las Vegas Strip - VIDEO
Fator has edited out one prominent figure: President Donald Trump, a focal point of Fator’s regular stage show and also Christmas show over the past 3½ years. The Trump puppet, with his pop-up hairpiece, has been sidelined from both shows until further notice. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Accused murder mastermind Frank LaPena is granted a pardon - VIDEO
A onetime Las Vegas casino bell captain who spent 25 years in prison as the accused mastermind in a notorious 1974 contract murder won his last legal battle for freedom Wednesday when the state Pardons Board granted him a conditional pardon restoring all his civil rights. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Middle: Nonpartisan voters and the 2020 election
How will the growing segment of nonpartisan or independent voters — those who have not registered with either political party, or who have left partisan politics behind — vote in 2020?
Tomi Lahren Speaks at UNLV - VIDEO
Fox News contributor and UNLV alumna Tomi Lahren returned to campus Wednesday night for a speech, titled “Stay Triggered,” that drew an auditorium of supporters as well as a group of protesters outside. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bernie Sanders released from Las Vegas hospital - VIDEO
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., issues a statement after he was released from Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, after suffering a heart attack earlier in the week. (Bernie Sanders via Twitter)
Democratic presidential candidates speak on impeachment - VIDEO
Democratic presidential candidates attending the March for Our Lives/Giffords Gun Safety Forum in Las Vegas comment on possible impeachment proceedings. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Joe Biden Las Vegas Rally Highlights - VIDEO
2020 presidential candidate, Joe Biden, came to Las Vegas to talk guns, climate change and the Ukranian-Trump scandal. Biden was interrupted by a protestor who sat amongst supporters at the rally and continued with his speech. (Angus Kelly & James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Joe Biden comments on Trump and his campaign efforts in Nevada - VIDEO
After an impeachment inquiry was opened on Donald Trump, Joe Biden talks with Review-Journal politics reporter Rory Appleton about Trump and his campaign in Nevada. (Angus Kelly & James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Trump announces trade agreement with China

On the same week the House Judiciary Committee voted to approve two articles of impeachment against him, President Donald Trump announced trade deals with Mexico and Canada, and a preliminary agreement with China. The announcement served as a bookend to Monday’s news that the White House had reached on a deal with House Democrats over the USMCA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.

DCCC ads defend Lee, Horsford on drug bill

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is airing ads that defend Reps. Susie Lee and Steven Horsford from Republican attacks by citing their work on a bill to lower prescription drug costs.