Papers Detail Complaints of Links to Treasury List
By Neil MacFarquhar
A sheaf of documents that a federal court forced the Treasury Department to release indicate there have been repeated complaints from American consumers who have been falsely linked to terrorism or drug trafficking during routine credit checks, the organization that sought the documents in a lawsuit said Tuesday.
The more than 100 pages of documents released Monday to the organization, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, include a variety of complaints about the list maintained by the Office of Foreign Asset Control in the Treasury Department, said Philip Hwang, a lawyer for the group.
The documents include e-mail messages from a Navy veteran who had been unable to use the Internet service PayPal, and an 18-year-old who wrote to say that he was not a Libyan minister who was apparently on the list.
A client of a Maryland Toyota dealer reported being checked by a salesperson for tattoos because of a Treasury list match.
A Treasury Department official was baffled by the last claim, saying information on the list did not include physical characteristics.
The released documents include e-mail messages and letters from consumers who have been denied cars or home loans or faced difficulties with other financial transactions because their names allegedly appear on the list. Financial institutions are supposed to check clients' names against the list, which is known officially as the Specially Designated Nationals List.
A Federal District Court judge in San Francisco last month ordered the Treasury Department to release all the complaints after a Freedom of Information Act request, Mr. Hwang said. He said his organization believed that what they received was only a small fraction of the complaints filed. Among other indications, he said, was that Henry Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary, said in Congressional testimony last year that his department fielded up to 90,000 telephone complaints about the list over one year.
The documents released Monday also included some half-dozen complaints from members of Congress on behalf of constituents, Mr. Hwang said.
The names and other personal information on the documents have been inked out, Mr. Hwang said, and the group is considering going back to the judge to force further compliance.
A Treasury Department spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity because a lawsuit was involved, said the Lawyers' Committee was asking for records that did not necessarily exist, as many of the complaints are handled by phone.
Another official said the department did not have numbers on how many people might have been falsely identified, since institutions can check their clients' identity against the list and ignore it if something like the date of birth obviously does not match the person in front of them.
Few people in the United States are actually on the Treasury list, which includes about 6,000 individuals or organizations, along with information like aliases, dates of birth and passport numbers. The 322-page list is on the Treasury Department's Web site (www.treasury.gov).
But given that many common Latino or Arab names are on the list, like "Carlos Sanchez" or "Mohamed Ali," the possibility for false matches is high. Mr. Hwang said most consumers discovered the problem only when they asked for a credit report and were shocked to find a notation on it associating them with terrorists or drug traffickers