Last night in a rare primetime address to the nation from the Oval Office, President Obama called on Congress to pass legislation stripping anyone, including American citizens, on the terrorism no-fly list of the ability to purchase a firearm in the United States. Sounds pretty reasonable right? Nobody wants terrorists to have easy access to guns and it certainly sounds bad when the argument is made that those currently on the terror watch list have the ability to do so. But here’s the problem: The terror no-fly list is a mangled, bureaucratic mess of over 700,000 names. Yes, there are names on the list that are connected to terrorism, but nearly half of those names belong to people who have zero links to terrorist groups at all.
The way some in Congress have proposed closing it would create an even bigger threat to civil liberties.
It all hinges on how you define a “suspected” terrorist. For Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., all it requires is for your name to be on a government list. She is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit anyone whose name appears on the FBI’s terror watch list from buying a firearm or an explosive while traveling in the United States.
That list, which contained 47,000 names at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, has grown to nearly 700,000 people on President Obama’s watch. The fact that they are names, not identities, has led to misidentifications and confusion, ensnaring many innocent people. But surely those names are there for good reason, right?
Not really. According to the technology website TechDirt.com, 40 percent of those on the FBI’s watch list — 280,000 people — are considered to have no affiliation with recognized terrorist groups. All it takes is for the government to declare is has “reasonable suspicion” that someone could be a terrorist. There is no hard evidence required, and the standard is notoriously vague and elastic.
So who ends up on the list who shouldn’t and why? Take for example Weekly Standard Senior Writer and Fox News Contributor Steve Hayes, who was put on the no-fly list after a cruise.
Stephen Hayes, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a regular Fox News contributor, was informed Tuesday that he had been placed on the Department of Homeland Security’s Terrorist Watchlist.
Hayes, who spoke to POLITICO by phone on Tuesday, suspects that the decision stems from U.S. concerns over Syria. Hayes and his wife recently booked a one-way trip to Istanbul for a cruise, and returned to the U.S., a few weeks later, via Athens.
“I’d be concerned if it was anything more than that,” Hayes said.
Hayes first learned about his status on the watchlist during a trip to Minneapolis a few weeks ago when he was stopped for extra screening.
“When I went online to check in with Southwest, they wouldn’t let me. I figured it was some glitch,” he explained. “Then I got to the airport and went to check in. The woman had a concerned look on her face. She brought over her supervisor and a few other people. Then they shut down the lane I was in, took me to the side, told me I was a selectee and scrawled [something] on my ticket.”
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