Zainab Merchant, a Harvard graduate student who founded and edits politics and culture site Zainab Rights, is speaking out about the destructive impact of the U.S. government’s secretive “Terrorist Screening Database,” which enables Transportation Security Administration agents to subject Americans to shocking violations of privacy and dignity that normally would be considered a violation of constitutional rights.
According to Merchant, she has been forced to endure “intrusive, humiliating searches — often in ways that appear duplicative and unnecessary — every time she has sought to board an airplane or reenter the United States.” Most recently, she said, TSA agents told her they needed to take “a deeper look” after publicly patting down her groin area, before threatening her with arrest if she didn’t allow them to inspect her in a private screening room. In the screening room, agents allegedly made her pull down her pants and underwear to reveal her bloodied menstrual pad, and then hid their badges when she asked for their names so that she could report their actions.
In response, the ACLU said it filed a formal complaint with Department of Homeland Security this week on behalf of the 27-year-old, detailing more than 10 incidents in which Merchant says was subjected to excessive searches — including one occasion when TSA agents stopped her and her family 10 times, and another incident where TSA agents called in explosive units to search her and family despite having previously cleared them just minutes earlier.
Border officials, the complaint alleges, have questioned Merchant on her religious beliefs, asked her about ISIS, forced her to unlock her phone and searched through her Facebook account, and even brought up her website to ask her to justify her criticism of U.S. government policies. These actions, the complaint alleges, occur because she is one of 700,000 Americans — most of whom are Muslim or have have Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian backgrounds — who are designated as “secondary security screening selectees” despite not having any connections to a terrorist group. The existence of the secret government watchlist, known as the “Terrorist Screening Database,” was first uncovered in classified documents leaked to The Intercept in 2014.
While Merchant has reportedly filed multiple requests with Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP), which is meant to help people who are repeatedly identified for additional screening, she said she only received a form letter in return stating that officials could “neither confirm nor deny” that she was on a watchlist. When HuffPost journalists contacted the TSA about Merchant’s case, they were also told officials could “neither confirm nor deny whether someone is on a watchlist,” and in classic Catch-22 fashion informed reporters that Merchant would need to file a TRIP request instead to get the information she sought.
Watch video coverage of Zainab’s case below.
Read the full story at HuffPost.