Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lawsuit Filed Over OFAC Watch List

Civil rights lawyers sued the Bush administration Wednesday over a Treasury Department terrorist watch list, asking a federal court to order the release of documents on the secretive program.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which filed the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court here, says the government list sometimes wrongly snags innocent people.

The lawsuit comes nearly two years after the attorneys' group invoked the act to request documents from the Treasury Department on complaints from people mistakenly ensnared by the list, and department policies regarding the list.

According to the group, the department refused to provide its policies, asserting that they were not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, and said it did not track complaints.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday "demands immediate disclosure of the requested documents," the group said.

Credit bureaus, health insurers, car dealerships, employers and landlords all use the watch list, which the government says is vital to catching people, companies or groups accused of supporting or financing terrorism.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise said the department has several safeguards meant to avoid "false positives" and to make the list user-friendly.

Among other things, it issues supplemental identifying information such as dates of birth to avert wrongful red flags, and it holds hundreds of workshops a year to help the businesses comply with laws, she said.

Millerwise declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, citing an agency policy on pending litigation.

The government by law has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit, presumably by turning over the records or by maintaining its stance that the policies are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, said Philip Hwang, an attorney with the lawyers' committee.

If the administration continues to resist disclosure, "then it could drag out into full-blown litigation," Hwang said.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson testified before a congressional panel in March about the program and said the number of complaints was in the tens of thousands.

The list of more than 6,000 names of possible terrorists and drug smugglers is managed by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Most are foreigners. Their assets may be frozen by U.S. banks, and Americans are forbidden from doing business with them.

The list includes some of the world's most common names, such as Gonzalez, Lopez, Ali, Hussein, Abdul, Lucas and Gibson, and companies are often unsure how to root out mismatches. Some turn consumers away rather than risk penalties of up to $10 million and 30 years in prison for doing business with someone on the list, the lawyers' group said.


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