ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A Muslim civil-rights group says the FBI is letting animal shelters, private investigators and even a Midwestern megachurch have access to its watchlist of suspected terrorists.
In court documents unsealed after a court hearing Friday, lawyers for the Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed concern that the watchlist is disseminated much more broadly than the government is willing to acknowledge.
“Defendants share their list with anyone or anything that asks,” CAIR’s lawyers wrote in one of their legal briefs.
Government lawyers, meanwhile, say CAIR is being alarmist and misrepresenting some of the entities on the list.
CAIR’s assertions about the broad dissemination of the terror watchlist are “so rife with misleading statements and outright falsehood that it is hard to know where to begin,” government lawyer Amy Powell wrote in an email attached to a court filing.
Issues over the dissemination of the terrorist watchlist to private entities have come in a lawsuit CAIR filed challenging the watchlist’s constitutionality. CAIR says the watchlist is riddled with errors and innocent Muslims are placed on the list by mistake and suffer numerous consequences as a result.
Those consequences are exacerbated, according to CAIR, by the government’s willingness to share the watchlist so broadly, including granting access to hundreds of private entities.
The government last month admitted in court papers that hundreds of private entities can access the watchlist, after years of denying the list was shared in that manner. But government officials maintain that private entities accessing the list are connected to law enforcement, like police forces for universities or railroads.
A judge recently ordered the government to let CAIR’s lawyers see which private entities had access to the watchlist, but they were forbidden from making copies or taking notes. CAIR’s lawyers say those restrictions leave them hamstrung in their ability to research concerns about specific entities.
Some of the disputes about how broadly the list is disseminated seem to stem from how broadly one defines “law enforcement.”
Animal shelters are a case in point. The government says those animal shelters on the list are simply animal welfare organizations that have been granted police powers under state law and therefore have law-enforcement responsibility.
The megachurch, government lawyers say, is actually the police department of a religious university.
CAIR’s lawyers have long suspected that the list is disseminated much more widely than the government has acknowledged. The broad terror watchlist contains hundreds of thousands of names; the much smaller no-fly list is culled from the watchlist.
At Friday’s hearing, Magistrate Judge John Anderson mulled making the list of private entities available to the public at large. He said that since private entities receiving the list are free to disclose the fact they can access the list, he didn’t see why the full list shouldn’t be part of the public record in the case.
But Justice Department Lawyer Antonia Konkoly said a wholesale disclosure of private entities would be a serious security breach, and could give terrorist groups a “roadmap” to understanding how the government monitors and combats them.
Ultimately, Anderson decided to leave in place rules that restrict CAIR’s lawyers from having their own copy of the private-entities list or making that list a publicly filed document.