We are all familiar with the no-fly lists and the ways in which they can complicate air travel for people with similar names to those on the lists. It turns out, there are more of these lists than most of us have been aware, although the existence of these lists is not itself secret (in fact, here is the list of about 6000 names). (Washington Post)
More American consumers have gotten caught up in a special brand of watchlist purgatory because their names are similar to ones on OFAC’s list of “specially designated nationals,” according to e-mails and other documents released under court order yesterday. By law, businesses are barred from conducting transactions with anyone on the list. Yesterday’s court-ordered release of documents to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, offers a window into the kinds of disruptions suffered by those ensnared in the process, as well as the difficulty of clearing their names.
More businesses are seeking, as part of a credit check, to know whether a person is also on the OFAC list. Failure to do so can bring a stiff penalty. Often a person whose name is similar to a name on the watchlist will be flagged by credit bureaus, which produce the reports businesses use to decide who is eligible for a car or home loan or to rent an apartment.
The Lawyers Committee sued the Treasury Department last year under the Freedom of Information Act for records of complaints relating to OFAC’s list. Last year, the group documented the cases of at least a dozen people denied services, including being blocked from buying exercise equipment. Yesterday’s partial release of records raised at least 30 new cases in which people sought OFAC help.
If you have ever tried to clear a mistake from your credit report, or been the victim of identity theft, you know what a hassle it can be to deal with the credit bureaus. Now mix in the feds and fear of terrorism and you have a recipe for a kafka-esque soup of obstacles and frustrations.
I know that the law wasn’t literally aimed at preventing terrorists from buying exercise equipment but, you know, unless terrorist suspects start entering arm wrestling competitions, is there any good reason that we should apply the watch list to treadmill and bowflex machines? Isn’t this a problem of a law being so overbroad in application that it is likely to fail to do what it is intended to do (either by being so extensive as to be unworkable, or engendering so much hostility from innocent people minding their own business that the laws get overturned)?
Updated: The New York Times points out that a lot of people have been concerned about the list, probably because while the list is not that long (6000 names) many of the names are common Arab and Latino names that are shared by many people who are not listed.
A Federal District Court judge in San Francisco last month ordered the Treasury Department to release all the complaints after a Freedom of Information Act request, Mr. Hwang said. He said his organization believed that what they received was only a small fraction of the complaints filed. Among other indications, he said, was that Henry Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary, said in Congressional testimony last year that his department fielded up to 90,000 telephone complaints about the list over one year.