ACLU Asks For Investigation Into Report of Innocent People Watchlisted to Meet Air Marshals' Quota

July 27, 2006 12:00 am

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NEW YORK– The American Civil Liberties Union today asked the Chief Privacy Officer of the Department of Homeland Security to investigate a news report that federal air marshals are being directed to fill a monthly quota of reports labeling particular Americans as “suspicious.”

“It’s bad enough when the local cop has to fill a quota for speeding tickets,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “But it is something straight out of Orwell if security personnel are really being pressured into entering innocent people into shadowy watch lists for no good reason, and without their knowledge.”

U.S. air marshals based in Las Vegas told KMGH 7News in Denver that they are required to submit at least one “Surveillance Detection Report,” or SDR, a month. According to the account, SDRs are documents intended to identify terrorist surveillance activity, and can lead to a person being listed on national or international watch lists. The air marshals interviewed for the story cited as an example a person, most likely a tourist, who was written up for taking a picture of the Las Vegas skyline through an aircraft window.

“Ultimately, no one knows the full extent of how someone might be affected by being identified as a possible terrorist in databases that circulate throughout our security establishment,” said ACLU Legislative Counsel Tim Sparapani. “But we do know it could affect your ability to fly, to cross international borders, to engage in financial transactions – even to get a job in some circumstances.”

According to the written and on-air news report, which featured air marshals discussing the quota system on camera with their identities masked, this system remains in force and affects annual raises, bonuses, awards and special assignments.

“We have always known the watch list system was mushrooming out of control,” said Steinhardt. “If these reports are true they make it plain that it is a fundamentally broken system with real consequences for an untold number of perfectly innocent Americans.

The ACLU’s letter to the Department of Homeland Security is online at:

The 7NEWS report is available at:

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