While Congress continues to debate the National Security Agency's program of warrantless wiretapping, another form of government scrutiny has largely escaped public notice. A growing number of private companies are now screening potential customers against a government watch-list of suspected terrorists. Financial institutions, credit bureaus, charities, landlords and even employers are checking names against the list -- a trend on a collision course with civil rights.
This watch-list, maintained by the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), now numbers more than 5,000 names. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, federal agencies began blocking the assets of hundreds of people and groups believed to be associated with terrorism, and adding them to the OFAC list. Most people on the list have never set foot in the United States. But because many names on the list are common Muslim or Latino names, people in this country with similar names are increasingly getting snagged.
A Roseville couple recently found that out the hard way at a local fitness store. When they attempted to buy a treadmill on a financing plan, a Wells Fargo representative told the salesperson that the couple would have to wait 72 hours while they were investigated. The reason? The husband's first name was Hussein. He is a U.S. citizen who has lived here more than 30 years, but because others named Hussein -- like Saddam -- are on the list, he had to be “cleared.”
Similarly, a Chicago resident discovered the watch-list when he went to an auto dealership to purchase a used car. At the top of his credit report, a salesman noticed a reference to an ''OFAC search'' -- followed by the names of terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. Apparently, the customer's last name, Muhammad -- one of the most common names in the world -- had triggered false matches to the watch-list, because the individuals named on the credit report had Muhammad as their middle name.
One wonders what would have happened had this man applied for a job or sought to rent an apartment using the same credit report. How many nervous employers or landlords would have simply turned him down, scared off by the alarming reference to terrorists? The prospect of lost opportunities for jobs or homes is very real, as more employers and landlords begin checking not just credit reports but also the OFAC list itself -- most with very little understanding of what the list means. (MORE)
[SHIRIN SINNAR is an attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, where she leads the Project on Post-9/11 Discrimination.]