Why Was a 7-Month-Old Baby Put on the U.S. Government's Terrorist Watchlist?

The U.S. government is accused of “injustice of historic proportions” against Muslim-Americans.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

“Baby Doe” was just seven months old when he was designated a potential terrorist by the U.S. government.

A U.S. citizen born to a Muslim-American family, the infant was at an airport when his “boarding pass was first stamped with the 'SSSS' designation,” indicating that he had been targeted for extra surveillance, according to a class-action lawsuit filed last week by the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights organization.

“While passing through airport security, he was subjected to extensive searches, pat downs and chemical testing,” continues the class action, which was submitted alongside a separate injunctive suit, both filed by CAIR-MI with the Law Office of Gadeir Abbas and the firm Akeel & Valentine. “Every item in his mother’s baby bag was searched, including every one of his diapers.”

Now that baby—whose identity is being protected—is a four-year-old toddler living in Alameda County, California. He is among 18 plaintiffs seeking redress for "an injustice of historic proportions" allegedly committed against them—and thousands of nameless others—by the U.S. government’s overreaching terrorist watchlisting system.

“Through extra‐judicial and secret means, the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse as a result of the shockingly large federal watchlist that now include hundreds of thousands of individuals,” states the class action.

The class action takes aim at the Selectee and No-Fly lists, as well as at the Terrorist Screening Database, which is housed under the "Terrorist Screen Center" of the FBI and operates as the U.S. government’s central terrorist watchlist. Numerous current and former employees of the Terrorist Screening Center were named and are being sued as individuals.

Despite civil rights outcry, the federal watchlisting system has been steadily growing in recent years.

Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux of the Intercept reported in 2014 that the Obama administration “has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither ‘concrete facts’ nor ‘irrefutable’ evidence' to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist.” According to their reporting on leaked government materials, of the 680,000 people on the watchlist at the time, "more than 40 percent are described by the government has having 'no recognized terrorist group affiliation.'”

The class action lawsuit, meanwhile, claims that there have been more than 1.5 million nominations to the federal watchlist since 2009 and that, in 2013 for example, the Terrorist Screening Center converted 98.96 percent of those nominations into watchlist placements."

While the Department of Homeland Security was forced last year to make limited reforms to its No-Fly list policies, the class action charges that the federal watchlist remains "accountability free. People placed on the federal watchlist have no means of removing themselves or challenging the basis for their inclusion.”

Many Americans, including children, wind up on the watchlist based on "mere guesses, hunches, and conjecture and even simply based on matters of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or the exercise of their constitutional rights,” the suit states.

Inclusion can have drastic and harmful consequences, from inability to travel to forced closures of bank accounts to public humiliation and degradation. Numerous individuals have testified to CAIR-MI that federal authorities have sought to use the list to pressure them into becoming informants against their own communities.

One plaintiff, Gulet Mohamed, charged in the suit that, while in Kuwait in 2010, he was abducted and then tortured and beaten for more than a week while blindfolded and handcuffed, with his interrogators directly citing his inclusion on the federal watchlist.

As for Baby Doe, his mother has already filed for redress with the Department of Homeland Security and submitted a civil rights complaint with the TSA. Neither the baby, nor his parents, have ever received an explanation for why he was placed on the federal watchlist and “at no time was he or his parents offered a meaningful opportunity to contest his designation," the suit states.

Lena Masri, a senior staff attorney for CAIR-MI, declared last week, "The terrorism watchlists are premised on the false notion that the government can somehow accurately predict whether an innocent American citizen will commit a crime in the future based on religious affiliation or First Amendment activities."

How long will this list continue to haunt Baby Doe and the numerous other innocent people caught in its dragnet?

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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