Biden and the Islamophobic Watchlist

We now know what everyone has long suspected, write Robert McCaw and Justin Sadowsky — the so-called terrorist watchlist is essentially a list of Muslim names.

Arrivals area at Miami International Airport, 2018. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Glenn Fawcett)

By Robert McCaw and Justin Sadowsky
Common Dreams

When President Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, he promised the American Muslim community that he would respond to their concerns about the harmful impact of the federal terrorism watchlist and the no-fly list by reviewing both databases and changing the processes to remove names. 

Three years later, nothing has been done. And American Muslims are suffering the consequences. 

On May 1, the Secret Service banned America’s longest-serving Muslim mayor from attending the White House’s annual Eid al-Fitr celebration.

Driving southbound on I-95, Prospect Park, N.J., mayor of 17-years Mohammed Khairullah received a phone call from White House staff unceremoniously explaining to him that they were disinviting him from the Eid event because the Secret Service did not grant him the necessary security clearance. There was no apology or further explanation. 

After interviewing Mayor Khairullah, lawyers at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Legal Defense Fund were able to confirm that the F.B.I. assigned the mayor — who has never been accused of any wrongdoing or crime — a status on the watchlist several years ago.

Because historic watchlist information is used to screen visitors to the White House, Mayor Khairullah was denied entry to the White House.

More Than 1.5 Million Names 

Created by the Bush administration in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the watchlist — then officially the “Terrorist Screening Database,” now the “Terrorist Screening Dataset” — is a list of more than a 1.5 million names of people known or suspected to be terrorists maintained by an organization the F.B.I. made up, called the TSC, though the F.B.I. cannot decide if that is short for “Terrorist Screening Center” or “Threat Screening Center.” 

The men and women on the list are all accused by the government of being “reasonably suspected” of having some association with terrorism, but there are no meaningful standards for what qualifies. 

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The government admits that race, religion, national origin, travel, and studying theology or languages all can be considered in deciding whether someone should be on the list. You do not need to be suspected of any criminal activity to be put on the list. And a variety of federal agencies and even foreign countries can nominate people to the list, with the TSC accepting over 99 percent of all nominations. 

Thanks to a recent leak of a 2019 version of part of the list to a Swiss hacker, we now also know what everyone has long suspected — that the so-called terrorist watchlist is essentially a list of Muslim names.

President Joe Biden with guests during Eid celebration reception, May 2, 2022. (White House/Adam Schultz)

CAIR had statistical experts perform a study of the leaked names on the list, and that study concluded that over 98 percent of the people on the list are Muslim. In contrast, government reports make clear that the largest terrorist threat to the United States comes from white supremacists.

Living Nightmare 

Life for the Muslims on the list is a nightmare. Those on the list cannot fly without coming to the airport, waiting potentially hours to be cleared by desk agents to fly, and then going through invasive secondary screening. 

When coming back to the country, those on the list are detained by border agents, sometimes at gunpoint in front of friends and family. They sit in holding cells for hours, interrogated, their electronics searched, and sometimes not returned for weeks or ever. At least one individual has been hospitalized in the process.

Those on the watchlist have missed weddings, funerals, and even the birth of their children. They have lost their jobs. Some have stopped traveling by air. Some refuse to leave the country. Some have just moved away from the United States entirely. 

Some people on the watchlist are designated for the infamous “No Fly List,” which means they cannot fly at all inside, to, from, or even over the United States.

One of CAIR’s clients on the No Fly List had to spend six days traveling from the Midwest to South Asia, through Mexico, South America, and the Middle East, to see the birth of his son — all part of a dramatic effort to outrun the travel restrictions placed on him.

And travel is not the only harm. Saadiq Long, an Air Force veteran in Oklahoma City, for months was randomly stopped by police in his hometown — including at gunpoint — because every time he drove past an automated license plate reader, the reader told police that a terrorist was in the car. 

Other people on the watchlist have had trouble getting immigration status for family, have had bank accounts closed, or were unable to get work-related clearances and licenses. 

This whole nightmare of a list might be defensible if it made us safer, but it doesn’t. The government has not shown that any terrorist attack was stopped because of the watchlist. 

The closest thing to any domestic terrorist attack committed by someone on the watchlist was a teenager who attempted to attack three police officers. Other than that, CAIR is not aware of anyone charged for engaging in terrorist-related activity while on the watchlist. The government’s experiment in pre-crime has failed. 

So why does the watchlist persist? Some of it may be inertia, with nobody wanting to get rid of even a completely unhelpful list. Some of it is that the list remains valuable as an excuse to collect data from Americans at the border, and for the F.B.I. to use as leverage to get individuals to spy on local mosques for them. Whatever the reasons, it is not to protect America. 

Biden should fulfill his campaign promise. Over 20 years of experience makes clear that the best way to meaningfully improve the terrorist watchlist is to end it. 

American Muslims, including one of the community’s most prominent political leaders, have suffered enough. 

Robert McCaw is government affairs manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

Justin Sadowsky is an attorney with CAIR Legal Defense Fund.

This article is from  Common Dreams.

Views expressed in this article and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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19 comments for “Biden and the Islamophobic Watchlist

  1. rosemerry
    May 31, 2023 at 14:43

    So called Catholic Joseph Biden should be on a “never to be released” list and have NO influence on any law or action in the USA or anywhere else. What hypocrisy and arrogance by people pretending to care for their nation.

    • robert e williamson jr
      May 31, 2023 at 20:59

      I’ll second that Rosemary.

      • Gordon Hastie
        June 1, 2023 at 11:09

        I’ll third it! Those people having selfies taken with Biden should be shown the photo of Biden showing deep respect for Kissinger. But perhaps they don’t even know who or what Kissinger is.

  2. Robert Emmett
    May 31, 2023 at 13:21

    The whole point of vague standards is for agents of government to slot-in the names of any group or individual whom they decide to put in their crosshairs. Muslims were the first, easy target for the new regime when the Patriot Act hit the ground running.

    Wonder how many citizens who are identified as far right extremists (you know, the #1 threat to public safety) now are on no-fly lists? Just as a comparison for how so-called justice operates. According to this article & simple math that would be 2% or less.

    I’m sorry for the headaches & heartaches being on such a list causes for everyday, law abiding people.

  3. Wade H.
    May 31, 2023 at 12:31

    Another gem from the Democratic Party play book. Cozy up to the most vulnerable in our society, promise to address discriminatory policies, get them to vote and then….do nothing and in some cases make it worse. There is no reason this list is still in existence.

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    May 31, 2023 at 12:00

    David Michael Smith (from his new book “Mass Death in the History of the US Empire”)- book quite revealing.

  5. susan
    May 31, 2023 at 08:41

    Good lord, when will this nation grow the hell up?

    • Vera Gottlieb
      May 31, 2023 at 11:53

      You and I will not live that long to see this ever happening.

  6. shmutzoid
    May 31, 2023 at 03:21

    Geeze, I thought we were winding down the so-called “War on Terror”, in favor of, ahem, “Great Powers Conflict”. (This is, after all the ‘Decisive Decade’)…..Naturally, the remnants of the War OF Terror that persist would be the ‘keeping of the lists’. (how very Stasi – like). …….and why does it persist??? ….because it can. ….Our National Security Surveillance State is rolling in money that should be going for education/housing/infrastructure/health care/etc. …..Seeking to find ways to spend all that money, my guess is that these lists will keep expanding. …….. Muslims will probably remain front and center of this list-keeping hate-fest. …… how far removed are we from when folks criticizing US foreign policy on comment threads like this will be categorized as ‘threats to the national security”???? What? … don’t think our making it on a TSD list isn’t where things are headed? (Or, maybe us ‘social misfits’ will just be rounded up and sent to re-education camps)
    …… First they came for the Muslims……….

  7. Bill Todd
    May 31, 2023 at 01:45

    When the rest of the world is evaluating our exhortations to support ‘freedom’ vs. ‘authoritarianism’ they should take careful notice of how our own behavior demonstrates the definitions that we apply to these terms.

  8. Patrick Powers
    May 30, 2023 at 22:11

    I don’t believe a word Biden says. So far he has never disappointed this expectation.

  9. Andrew Nichols
    May 30, 2023 at 21:49

    Shortly this Stasi list will have chinese and russian names to join moslem ones. It’s the Rules Based International Order dont you know?

  10. JonnyJames
    May 30, 2023 at 19:49

    This is a holdover from the Bush Jr./Cheney regimes – the new “evildoers” and “terrsts” are Russian and Chinese. They need to update the lists to reflect the New Bogeymen. The Empire always needs a manufactured enemy to minimize dissent, distract the public, and mobilize political support.

    The continuing racist, anti-Arab narratives help to enable US policy of unconditionally supporting Apartheid Israel.

    • Valerie
      May 31, 2023 at 12:45

      I remember in Paris in 2003, a lot of café doors/windows were festooned with “wanted” posters of Bush Jr., the biggest “terrst” in the world. (Remember “freedom fries” and pouring French wine down the drain?) Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

      • JonnyJames
        May 31, 2023 at 18:06

        Oui, bien sur Valerie! I remember that. I was living in the Netherlands during those years. My colleagues (none were from the US) and I routinely mocked and ridiculed “the chimp” (Bush Jr.) and Dirty Dick Cheney. I was no fan of Jacques Chirac, but at least he told the chimp to bugger off.

      • Piotr Berman
        May 31, 2023 at 21:16

        A lot changed. France is obedient now, so French food is OK except for a category of cheeses that could make American sick while Europeans eat them without problems. While 20 years ago one could see a variety of opinions and policies among “Western” (NATO + close allies) government, now we have “concert of democracies”, singing in unison, and those who do not join the choir under increasing pressure.

        • Valerie
          June 1, 2023 at 11:13

          Right Piotr, but we now have this to contend with; which way is this “concert of democracies” heading:

          “Across Europe, the far right is rising. That it seems normal is all the more terrifying”
          “Austria, France, Germany, Sweden and now Spain – the firewall between the mainstream and the far right is crumbling”

          Owen Jones Guardian 31st May.

    • Dr. Hujjathullah M.H.B. Sahib
      June 2, 2023 at 02:07

      You got the crux of the matter right, kudos !

  11. delia ruhe
    May 30, 2023 at 19:49

    Islamophobia hmmm. . .

    add to that:
    and other racisms practiced by government,

    and is it any wonder that White Supremacists are enjoying visibility these days–some even preaching self-righteously to street crowds.

    I guess cultivating backwardness is part and parcel of American decline-and-fall.

Comments are closed.