Under legal pressure, the Obama administration will begin telling some suspected terrorists if and why they are on a list of tens of thousands of people banned from flying to, from or within the United States.
Under the new policy, which was prompted by an ongoing federal lawsuit, an American traveler who has been denied boarding a commercial airliner can petition the U.S. Transportation Security Administration once to find out whether he or she is on the no-fly list and a second time for an unclassified explanation for why he or she is on the list. In some cases, the government will not be able to provide an explanation.
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The changes partially lift a veil of secrecy enshrouding a policy that has been a centerpiece of the government's counterterrorism efforts since the September 2001 terror attacks. But the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been challenging the constitutionality of the no-fly list, said the changes don't go far enough in giving travelers the legal due process they are entitled to.
Last fall, there were 64,000 people on the no-fly list, the government said. Typically, less than 5 percent of those on the list are Americans.
Previously, the government's policy was never to confirm or deny that a person actually is on list, citing national security concerns. In most instances, travelers assume they are on the list because they are instructed to go through additional screening at airports or because they are told they can't board their flights.
Travelers have been able to appeal their presumed placement on the list since 2007 by petitioning the Transportation Security Administration. Only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of appeals the government receives each year have been from travelers actually on the list, the government has said.
The appeals process will continue to go through the TSA under the new policy.
"These enhancements continue to ensure that individuals who are deemed to be a threat to our aviation security are prohibited from boarding a flight within, or bound for, the United States," said Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron.