External Affairs

His Name Is Khan and He’s Probably on a List. Good Luck Getting Off It

It is close to impossible to find out whether Shah Rukh Khan is on a US watch list and why, let alone remedying the problem.

Shah Rukh Khan. Credit: PTI/Files

Shah Rukh Khan. Credit: PTI/Files

Washington: No one in the US government will say why Indian megastar Shah Rukh Khan gets detained at American airports every time he visits, because everything about the process is top secret.

Khan can’t even determine if he is indeed on a US watch list, forget trying to get off it. According to the 166-page ‘March 2013 Watchlisting Guidelines‘, the “general policy of the US government is to neither confirm nor deny an individual’s watchlist status”.

With all due respect to the US ambassador to India, Richard Verma, who promised on Twitter to intervene in the matter to end Khan’s troubles, it seems near impossible to penetrate the bureaucratic wall erected by multiple US agencies.

Khan appears to be an unfortunate victim of a highly secretive process that puts Americans and foreigners into the main terrorist database controlled by a network of no fewer than 19 US government agencies. They include the CIA, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, Terrorist Screening Center, National Security Agency, Department of Homeland Security, Army, Navy and the Air Force among others.

The authority to name someone on a list is broad and the criteria flexible. Evidence doesn’t have to be “irrefutable”, it can be “fragmentary”, according to the guidelines.
Given Khan’s three similar encounters at US airports – Newark in 2009, White Plains in 2012 and Los Angeles in 2016 – when he was taken aside for detailed questioning, it appears he might be on the “selectee list”, which leads to extra screening.

According to the guidelines, which are complex and sometimes contradictory, any of the 19 agencies can put in a name of someone who is “suspected” of being a terrorist or suspected of associating with someone suspected of terrorism. A person can also be “nominated” by any of the agencies if he or she says something on social media that can be read as reasonably suspicious.

Apart from the Terrorism Screening Database (TSDB), there is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment or TIDE, the largest US database of terrorism information from intelligence sources around the world. TIDE is classified but TSDB is not.

A person can be on a list if his name is similar or has been used as an alias by a terrorist, which apparently has happened in the case of Khan. The founder of Indian Mujahideen, Yasin Bhatkal, allegedly used Khan’s name as an alias, among a dozen others, including Shivanand.

Senator Ted Kennedy was prevented on five different occasions in the early 2000s from boarding a flight because a terrorist had used an alias ‘T. Kennedy’. In 2006, CBS got hold of a copy of the no-fly list and found Bolivian President Evo Morales on it.

President Barack Obama greatly expanded the powers of security agencies in 2010 after a Nigerian terrorist boarded a flight to Detroit with a bomb in his underwear in 2009. His name was on TIDE but he wasn’t prevented from boarding.

Obama issued a memo on January 7, 2010 to the heads of ten key agencies, including the secretaries of state, defence, homeland security and director of national intelligence, demanding “immediate actions” to “enhance the security of the American people”.

The White House issued new guidelines, which were broadened in 2013, creating a jungle of acronyms and legalese for officials. The bureaucrats responsible for spotting suspicious characters are described variously as “nominators”, “aggregators” and “originators”. They determine the level of negative information on particular individuals, ranging from “derogatory information” to “extreme derogatory information”.

According to former attorney general, Eric Holder, there were 227,932 nominations for the TSDB list in 2009, of which only 508 were rejected. The nominations grew to 468,749 in 2013, of which only 4,915 were rejected. The rate of rejection barely amounts to 1%.

This information came out in a 2014 court case when Gulet Mohamed filed a suit, asking why he was placed on a “no-fly list”. In 2013, there were nearly 1.5 million people on the various terrorist watchlists, according to the justice department’s own filing in the civil lawsuit.

Given the recent attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, the watchlists must have expanded even further. Getting Khan off the list – and the right one – would require a Herculean effort.