Caught in terror watch list limbo
People with no terrorist connections who find themselves on the US watch list have a hard time getting off the list.
Story by Ruxandra Guidi for PRI's The World. Use audio player above to listen to full report.
Since the Sept.11, 2001 attacks, the government has compiled names of suspected terrorists or people affiliated with them. This terror watch list has grown exponentially in the last decade. But some people, with no terrorist connections, end up on list – and have a hard time finding a way out.
For Shuaib Azizi, it all started in 2007. Azizi is an Afghan-born US citizen; a sharply-dressed and upper middle class real estate broker from a San Diego suburb. He would regularly cross the border from San Diego to Tijuana to show properties to clients.
One day, Azizi was stopped and searched by Border Patrol. Then, it began happening over and over again. "Sometimes they hold me there for as much as six hours," he said.
Azizi wasn't given a reason for why he was being stopped, nor which government agency he could turn to for answers. And soon after that, he was being detained at airports, too.
"They would search through everything, my pockets, my body, and take everything out, my wallet, my belt, you name it," Azizi said. "And then after you sit down you just wait there for hours and hours and hours until you get a clearance from Washington."
As the problem persisted, Azizi's relationship with his clients began to suffer. Eventually, a Border Patrol agent hinted to Azizi that his name matched the name of a terrorist suspect in Afghanistan. In desperation, Azizi sent letters of complaint to local, state and federal officials.
Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray received one of Azizi's letters and began an inquiry. Brian Jones, a liaison with the Homeland Security Department for the congressman, says that the congressman's office "sent a response back, basically saying that they can't confirm or deny why he's being stopped." Jones continued, "They said they will look into it, and if so, they'd make the necessary changes. After that, I never heard from the congressman’s office again."
But Azizi did. He received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security, containing what’s known as a Traveller Redress Inquiry number, or TRIP, which he could show to officials next time he was stopped. His new TRIP number would allegedly take care of the problem.
Since 2005 the number of names on the watch list has expanded from 288,000 in 2005 to a million in 2009, according to an audit by the Government Accountability Office.
The ACLU calls the watch list "bloated." Attorney Sean Riordan of the ACLU's San Diego office says there's a major problem with Azizi’s case: if he’s on the list, no one knows why. Therefore, there's no way to challenge it.
Read full report on The World website.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.