I screen, you screen

August 16, 2004

THE SIERRA CLUB, Pain Relief Network, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals may seem unlikely recruits to snoop in the war on terror. But in order to get private donations from federal employees through paycheck withdrawals, they and some 10,000 other charitable groups must compare the names of employees and potential employees against various government lists of "people of suspicion."

A small clause newly inserted into applications for this year's Combined Federal Campaign, a United Way-style fund-raiser that federal employees and military people can opt into, requires not only that charities certify they don't knowingly employ people or contribute money to organizations that promote terror but that they do it in a certain way: by reviewing a handful of extensive yet incomplete lists of suspected evildoers.

The lists have their own problems: Some entries are last names without first names, many reflect biases against ethnic or religious minorities and many names are quite common. For example, American Civil Liberties Union executive director, Anthony D. Romero, found a match with himself under an alias (Antonio Romero) on one list. There is no way for him or anyone whose name appears to be on a list to find out why, or to have it removed.

But content is not the main problem or the reason the ACLU pulled out of the campaign July 31, and Amnesty International USA and the Electronic Frontier Foundation did the same last week. Setting up modern-day blacklists is wrong; denying private funds to private agencies doesn't wash. And such tactics could set a precedent for private firms to start discriminating against potential employees who only vaguely match someone on the list; no Romeros need apply.

Since when did suspicion equal guilt? Who will pay the charities, most of which are shoestring local operations, for the time workers have to spend sifting through the lists, some of which have 20,000 or more names? Do they have to check all their volunteers, too? Do all groups that get federal funds, from universities to private contractors, have to do the same thing?

And if they find a match, then what? Call the Combined Federal Campaign and say, uh, take us off the list, please? Fire their worker to keep the privately donated money? Ask them questions -- who are your friends, what organizations do you belong to, what did you do last Friday night -- that could get them sued for employee harassment in any other situation?

The Office of Management and Budget, which runs the campaign, should rescind the new requirement. Of course federal employees, many of whom target their contributions to specific causes, wouldn't want to donate to terror groups or their supporters. But forcing charitable groups to invade their workers' privacy isn't the answer.

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