• 20 October 2009
  • Posted By Matt Sugrue
  • Civil Rights Legislation, Congress, Iranian American Life

Failure to Launch: The Terrorist Watchlist

Erich Scherfen was an infantryman in the first Gulf War and then a National Guard helicopter pilot. In total, his career with the U.S. military covered thirteen years. After leaving the military with an honorable discharge, Scherfen became a pilot for the regional airline Colgan Air Inc. Despite his history of exemplary service, Scherfen discovered in 2008 that he was in danger of losing his job because his name appeared on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Terrorist Watchlist. Scherfen had no clue why his name was on the Watchlist, and discovered that there was no system for removing his name. As a result, Scherfen was forced to take the DHS to court in an ongoing bid to clear his name.

Unfortunately, Erich Scherfen’s story is not an unfamiliar one, especially to persons of Middle Eastern descent. Far too many American citizens find themselves on the Watchlist after being incorrectly labeled as terrorists or even victims of mistaken identity. People who are misidentified as terrorists cannot check-in to flights online or use the automated check-in booths. Instead, they must take extra time and have an agent at the ticket counter confirm that they are an average person and not a terrorist, and are also subject to repeated security searches.

On February 4th, 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill allowing people wrongly placed on DHS’s Terrorist Watchlist to file an appeal to have their name removed. The bill, The Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Redress Act of 2009, was introduced by Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) on January 15, 2009. It passed through the House with a vote of 413 – 3. Since that time, the FAST Act has wallowed in legislative limbo.

The purpose of this bill is straightforward: allowing citizens incorrectly placed on the Watchlist to get their names off it. Appellants under the bill will have to prove conclusively that they do not represent a threat to the citizenry of the United States. These safeguards are included in order to ensure that only those citizens misidentified as terrorists are allowed to remove their names, while at the same time protecting the integrity and original intent of the Watchlist.

The Terrorist Watchlist was originally conceived to protect U.S. citizens from those people and groups that seek to do them harm. The Watchlist is now too unwieldy to be truly effective, though, since it already includes over 1.3 million names. If those citizens who are not a threat to the United States were allowed recourse to remove their names, then the list would be streamlined and, therefore, much more effective. The Watchlist is supposed to protect innocent Americans; not to wrongly persecute them.  As Rep. Clarke pointed out, “With so many different names on the list, it is not surprising that every single day, countless Americans are misidentified as terrorists.”

Rep. John Lewis’ (D-GA) inclusion on the terrorist Watchlist is perhaps the most well known story of the Watchlist’s problems. However, current and former members of the Watchlist include: Nelson Mandela, Marine Staff Sergeant Daniel Brown (who is on the list because “gunpowder was detected on his boots, most likely a residue of a previous tour in Iraq”) and the late Senator Ted Kennedy. It took three weeks for Senator Kennedy to have his name removed, and that was only a result of his prominence in government; not because he utilized an official appeals avenue.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has said that “The watchlist is only as good as the information on it.” Rep. Thompson is absolutely correct, and having people who are not terrorists on the list will only continue to degrade the list’s efficacy.

Sure, it seems like common sense to let Americans affected by their name’s inclusion on a massive, secret Terrorist Watchlist to prove that they don’t belong on the list or that they aren’t the same person as the name on the list. The House also voted to give Americans this right in the previous session of Congress, only to see it languish in the Senate’s Commerce Committee. Yet, without a strong champion in the Senate, this bill will die there, and Americans still won’t have that right.

Posted By Matt Sugrue

    One Response to “Failure to Launch: The Terrorist Watchlist”

  1. Pirouz says:

    Matt, I’m really glad you posted this.

    I’m on the watchlist.

    How I got there is as follows. During the 2nd Lebanon War, I wrote objective military analyses and submitted them to a major US newspaper. I also sent several emails responding to that newspaper’s coverage of the war in Iraq, Lebanon and the role of Iran. I think they may have objected to the fact that I was overly objective in my views, because they actually went so far as to call the police on me. What followed was a long period of covert surveillance by law enforcement. It could still be in effect, but it isn’t nearly as obvious as it was back then. Back then, it really was a nightmare. I, for one, know firsthand what some of those green movement demonstrators are going through- from my experiences right here in the USA.

    Needless to say, I feel it’s unjustified that I’m on the watchlist, merely for exercising my freedom of speech. I’m not anti-American. The worst you could say is that I’m critical of certain US policies in the Middle East. For that I deserve to be on the watchlist? (And folks are critical of Iran for this kind of thing- the hypocrisy!)

    Anyway, thanks for the update. Oh, and any additional info or advice would be much appreciated.

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7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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