Reopening the legal debate about a key national security tool used by thousands of U.S. and international government agencies, a federal judge has declared that a terrorism watch list created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga in Virginia ruled that the Terrorist Screening Database, maintained by the FBI and other government agencies, doesn’t give Americans on the list an adequate opportunity to challenge their status as potential terrorism suspects, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), on behalf of nearly two dozen Americans who believe they are in the database.
Trenga ruled that the plaintiffs “have constitutionally protected liberty interests” that are implicated by the government maintaining such a database and that the process for challenging their inclusion on the list is inadequate.
“There is no evidence, or contention, that any of these plaintiffs satisfy the definition of a ‘known terrorist,’” Trenga wrote. “The watch list’s arbitrary criteria has long enabled the government to target Muslims based on their faith and then build a secretive network map of their associations,” said CAIR attorney Carolyn Homer.
“Today, the government’s unlawful surveillance of the Muslim community has begun to be curtailed.”
While Wednesday’s ruling is significant, Trenga set up a bigger battle in the weeks ahead, CNN reports, noting that the judge ordered both sides of the case to come up with arguments for what should happen next following his decision and those arguments could influence the fate of the database and the federal government’s process.
The Terrorist Screening Database was created in 2003 to consolidate the government’s terrorism-related watch lists.
It contains the biometric and biographical data of 1.2 million individuals—including 4,600 U.S. citizens—as of 2017. The “no-fly” list is a subset of the Terrorist Screening Database, prohibiting anyone listed from boarding a civilian aircraft. About 18,000 federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies, more than 500 private organizations and more than 60 foreign governments have access to the database.