House proposal would force disclosures of terror watchlist

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — The House has adopted a proposal from Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar that would force President Donald Trump’s administration to disclose details about how it shares the FBI’s watchlist of more than 1 million individuals classified as “known or suspected terrorists” with foreign countries.

Omar’s amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act was adopted Tuesday night on the House floor by a voice vote. It would require a report within 180 days detailing which foreign countries get access to the database and how such decisions are made.

Omar’s office said the bill is expected to pass the House this week. It would then head to the Republican-controlled Senate.

The watchlist has been subject to multiple lawsuits challenging its constitutionality. Critics say the list is mismanaged and innocent Muslims end up on it with no recourse for clearing their names.

Omar has expressed concerns that countries with poor human-rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and China, receive the list and submit names for inclusion.

“Giving the same people who violently murdered Jamal Khashoggi access to the watchlist puts lives in danger,” Omar and 10 other members of Congress wrote in a letter last month to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We have also received credible reports that Uyghur activists have been added to the watchlist at the behest of the Chinese government. It is unacceptable for U.S. resources to contribute to the brutal repression of political dissidents abroad.”

The letter was also signed by Democratic Congress members including Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; and presidential candidate Tim Ryan of Ohio. Khashoggi was a Saudi writer who criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in columns for The Washington Post. He was slain in October while visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey. After a monthslong inquiry, a U.N. investigator concluded that Khashoggi was a victim of a “deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”

The watchlist, also known as the Terrorist Screening Database, is maintained by the FBI and shared with a variety of federal agencies. Customs officers have access to the list to check people coming into the country at border crossings, and aviation officials use the database to help form the government’s no-fly list, which is a much smaller subset of the broader watchlist.

The watchlist has grown significantly over the years. As of June 2017, about 1.2 million people were included on the watchlist, up from 680,000 in 2013. The vast majority are foreigners. But according to the government, roughly 4,600 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents were also on the watchlist as of 2017.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, challenging the watchlist’s constitutionality. The lawsuit revealed that the federal government shares the list not only with foreign governments and local law-enforcement agencies, but also hundreds of private entities deemed “law enforcement adjacent” by the government, including private schools and railroads. CAIR’s lawyers say the list is disseminated so broadly that innocent Muslims face hassles not only at border crossings and airports, but also in everyday life.

CAIR lawyer Gadeir Abbas called Omar’s legislation an important step forward.

“Use of the watchlist by foreign countries has always been one of its most disturbing aspects,” he said. “Congress and the public deserve an accounting of how this is being done.”

Government lawyers have argued against public disclosures detailing how the watchlist is compiled and disseminated, saying it could provide terrorists a roadmap to understanding how the government monitors and combats them.

Omar came to the United States from Somalia as a refugee and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. She, Tlaib and Pressley are three of the four Democratic freshmen congress members whom Trump has told to “go back” to their home countries, even though all are U.S. citizens. The fourth is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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