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Ensnared by error on growing US watch list

world Updated: Apr 08, 2010 00:46 IST

Rahinah Ibrahim, a Stanford University doctoral student, arrived at San Francisco International Airport with her 14-year-old daughter for a 9 a.m. flight home to Malaysia. She asked for a wheelchair, having recently had a hysterectomy.

Instead, when a ticket agent found her name on the no-fly list, Ibrahim was handcuffed, searched and jailed amid a flurry of phone calls involving the local police, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Two hours after her flight left, Ibrahim was released without explanation. She flew to Malaysia the next day.

But when she tried to return to the United States, she discovered that her visa had been revoked. And when she complained that she did not belong on a terrorist watch list, the government’s response came a year later in a form letter, saying only that her case had been reviewed and that any changes warranted had been made.

Every year, thousands of people find themselves caught up in the government’s terrorist screening process. Some are legitimate targets of concern, others are victims of errors in judgment or simple mistaken identity.

Either way, their numbers are likely to rise as the Obama administration recalibrates the standards for identifying potential terrorists, in response to intelligence failures that let a would-be bomber fly to Detroit from Amsterdam last Christmas. On Friday, the administration altered rules for identifying which passengers flying to the US should face extra scrutiny at the gate. And it is reviewing ways to make it easier to place suspects on the watch list.

“The entire federal government is leaning very far forward on putting people on lists,” Russell E. Travers, a deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a recent Senate hearing. Before the attempted attack Christmas Day, Travers said, “I never had anybody tell me that the list was too small.”

Now, he added, “It’s getting bigger, and it will get even bigger.”

Even as the universe of those identified as a risk expands, the decision-making involved remains so secretive that people cannot be told whether they are on the watch list, why they may be on it or even whether they have been removed.