Growing Terror Watch List Flags People In Error
SAN DIEGO -- His story is straight out of Franz Kafka's "The Castle" -- the story of a man getting lost in a labyrinth of government bureaucracy to the point that it takes over his life, and drives him mad.
For Shuaib Azizi, it all started in 2007. Azizi is an Afghan-born U.S. citizen. A sharply-dressed, upper-middle class real estate broker from a San Diego suburb. He would regularly cross the border from San Diego to Tijuana to show properties to clients. One day, he was stopped and searched by Customs and Border Protection, and then it began happening over and over again.
"Sometimes they hold me there for as much as six hours," said Azizi. "Then five, four hours, like two or three hours was just normal."
Azizi wasn't given a reason for why he was being stopped, nor what government agency he could turn to for answers. Soon after, he was being detained at airports, too.
"They would search me," he went on. "Everything: my pockets, my body. They would take everything out, my wallet, my belt--you name it. And then after you sit down, it would mean just waiting there for hours and hours and hours, until you'd get a clearance from Washington."
As the problem persisted, Azizi's relationship with his clients began to suffer. Eventually, a Customs and Border Protection agent hinted to Azizi that his name matched the name of a terrorist suspect in Afghanistan. In desperation, Azizi sent letters of complaint to local, state and federal officials. Republican Congressman, Brian Bilbray, received one of Azizi's letters and began an inquiry.
"They sent a response back, saying basically, that they can't confirm or deny why he's being stopped," said Brian Jones, a liaison with the Homeland Security Department for Congressman Bilbray. "But they told me they would look into it, and if so, they would make the necessary changes. After that, I never heard from them again."
But Azizi did hear back. He received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security, containing what's known as a Traveler Redress Inquiry number (TRIP), which he could show to officials the next time he was stopped. His new TRIP number would allegedly take care of the problem.
An interview request to the Department of Homeland Security's TRIP program went unanswered. But the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which manages the terror watch lists, did respond to our questions. An official who asked to remain nameless told us "Ninety-nine percent of the people who file a redress form who believe they are mistakenly on the Terrorist Watch List, have no connection to the list at all."
In other words, individuals like Azizi may not even be on a terror watch list after all.
"You want (the list) to be accurate and complete," said Timothy Healy, Director of the Terrorist Screening Center, during a 2009 interview to Voice of America. "It's a balancing act between private citizens and their concerns, and the safety of the United States. And that's a balancing act that occurs every day."
Since 2005, the number of names on the watch list has expanded from 288,000 in 2005 to a million in 2009, according to an audit by the Government Accountability Office.
The ACLU calls this a "bloated list". Attorney Sean Riordan of the ACLU's San Diego office believes there are two main things that are problematic with Azizi's case: if he's on the list, no one knows why, and there's no way to challenge it.
"The government's vision may be completely unreasonable in that case," said Riordan. "But yet there's very little way to even gather information about what's happening, let alone to try to frontally attack any errors that the government might be making."
One recent positive development is that Azizi is no longer being stopped at the border as much as he used to. Bilbray's office is taking credit for the change, but in the absence of a transparent process, the real reason remains a mystery.