Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Terrorist? No Home Loan for You!

Someone please explain to me why the first response to any whiff of "terror" is always overbroad and overwrought:
Private businesses such as rental and mortgage companies and car dealers are checking the names of customers against a list of suspected terrorists and drug traffickers made publicly available by the Treasury Department, sometimes denying services to ordinary people whose names are similar to those on the list.

The Office of Foreign Asset Control's list of "specially designated nationals" has long been used by banks and other financial institutions to block financial transactions of drug dealers and other criminals. But an executive order issued by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has expanded the list and its consequences in unforeseen ways. Businesses have used it to screen applicants for home and car loans, apartments and even exercise equipment, according to interviews and a report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to be issued today.

"The way in which the list is being used goes far beyond contexts in which it has a link to national security," said Shirin Sinnar, the report's author. "The government is effectively conscripting private businesses into the war on terrorism but doing so without making sure that businesses don't trample on individual rights."
Of course, as with many things, you can partly blame Congress for this one:
The lawyers' committee has documented at least a dozen cases in which U.S. customers have had transactions denied or delayed because their names were a partial match with a name on the list, which runs more than 250 pages and includes 3,300 groups and individuals. No more than a handful of people on the list, available online, are U.S. citizens.

Yet anyone who does business with a person or group on the list risks penalties of up to $10 million and 10 to 30 years in prison, a powerful incentive for businesses to comply. The law's scope is so broad and guidance so limited that some businesses would rather deny a transaction than risk criminal penalties, the report finds.
And how effective is the system?
Tom Kubbany is neither a terrorist nor a drug trafficker, has average credit and has owned homes in the past, so the Northern California mental-health worker was baffled when his mortgage broker said lenders were not interested in him. Reviewing his loan file, he discovered something shocking. At the top of his credit report was an OFAC alert provided by credit bureau TransUnion that showed that his middle name, Hassan, is an alias for Ali Saddam Hussein, purportedly a "son of Saddam Hussein."

The record is not clear on whether Ali Saddam Hussein was a Hussein offspring, but the OFAC list stated he was born in 1980 or 1983. Kubbany was born in Detroit in 1949.
And who is this supposed son?
Ali Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti (Arabic: علي صدام حسين التكريتي, born 1983) is the supposed third son of Saddam Hussein, whose mother is Samira Shahbandar, Saddam's second wife. However, his existence is denied by family members; Raghad Hussein, one of Saddam's daughters, claimed in an interview that Ali is her son, which would make him his grandson. The existence of this son of Saddam Hussein can only be speculated because he would probably not be able to find asylum in neighboring countries and runs a high risk of being killed.
Which explains why he's in the United States, trying to buy houses.

It's pretty obvious what happened here. When some government employee somewhere was sitting his office helping his colleagues compile this list of known and suspected terrorists, I'm sure his reaction to the mention of any of Saddam's progeny was "Well...better safe than sorry", which in general is probably a good rule of thumb when dealing with the threat of terrorism, but which also acquires the application of a healthy does of common sense. Sadly, common sense has been lacking 'round these parts since about 9/11/2001.

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