March 27, 2007

Ordinary Customers Flagged as Terrorists

When government lackeys and conservative think tanks reach blindly for rationale for keeping massive, imprersonal databases full of names and personally identifiable information in order to “protect the homeland,” even though there are no accountability measures and no way for innocent individuals to correct, challenge, or alter the information that’s in the database – especially when they’ve been mistakenly caught up in it – this is a good story to point out.

According to the Washington Post, businesses from mortgage lenders to rental car agencies are the Treasury Department’s publicly searchable and available to companies looking to ensure they don’t provide goods and services to terrorists or individuals linked to terrorist groups. This would be a good thing all around if there didn’t seem to be more innocent customers being flagged and denied service than there have been terrorists caught and reported. Everyday people looking to rent a car or get a loan for a car or a home. The list was originally designed to prevent drug dealers and foreign nationals that were considered unsavory individuals to be denied services as punishment for their involvement in terrorism or illegal activities. The problem stems from the fact that it seems to be nothing more than a fishing expedition that’s been catching more dolphins than fish, so to speak.

The Office of Foreign Asset Control’s list of “specially designated nationals” has long been used by banks and other financial institutions to block financial transactions of drug dealers and other criminals. But an executive order issued by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has expanded the list and its consequences in unforeseen ways. Businesses have used it to screen applicants for home and car loans, apartments and even exercise equipment, according to interviews and a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to be issued today.

“The way in which the list is being used goes far beyond contexts in which it has a link to national security,” said Shirin Sinnar, the report’s author. “The government is effectively conscripting private businesses into the war on terrorism but doing so without making sure that businesses don’t trample on individual rights.”

The lawyers’ committee has documented at least a dozen cases in which U.S. customers have had transactions denied or delayed because their names were a partial match with a name on the list, which runs more than 250 pages and includes 3,300 groups and individuals. No more than a handful of people on the list, available online, are U.S. citizens.

Yet anyone who does business with a person or group on the list risks penalties of up to $10 million and 10 to 30 years in prison, a powerful incentive for businesses to comply. The law’s scope is so broad and guidance so limited that some businesses would rather deny a transaction than risk criminal penalties, the report finds.

“The law is ridiculous,” said Tom Hudson, a lawyer in Hanover, Md., who advises car dealers to use the list to avoid penalties. “It prohibits anyone from doing business with anyone who’s on the list. It does not have a minimum dollar amount. . . . The local deli, if it sells a sandwich to someone whose name appears on the list, has violated the law.”

Wow. Remind me to tell my favorite sandwich shop that they’d better stop serving that family with the diplomat tags on their car next door. They might be facing significant fines and penalties.

[ Ordinary Customers Flagged as Terrorists ]
Source: The Washington Post

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