For years, the federal government has denied widely sharing its terrorist watchlist with the private sector. But American Muslims have long had suspicions to the contrary, as those mistakenly placed on the list faced everyday difficulties ranging from making electronic bank transfers to boarding airplanes.
Source building and careful document review by Northern Virginia correspondent Matthew Barakat finally revealed that the federal government shares its terrorist watchlist with more than 1,400 private entities, including hospitals and universities. The government’s acknowledgement of the sharing, buried in the electronic docket of a civil lawsuit, was significant because officials have repeatedly denied that the list was given to private groups. Barakat’s sources and his thorough coverage of the 2-year-old case had him ready to jump on the filing as soon as it became public.
His APNewsBreak on Feb. 19 earned wide attention, including hundreds of members using the story. Others scrambled to catch up, with The Washington Post crediting AP for breaking the story when it ran its own version in the paper.
But Barakat wasn’t done breaking news: The next day he was first to report that the Council on American Islamic Relations was calling for a congressional probe. And the day after that, he was the only reporter in court when a federal judge berated government lawyers and ordered them to disclose those private entities to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, with Barakat producing a story played on websites ranging from Fox News to The New York Times.
The foundation for these scoops was built over years as Barakat covered American Muslims’ difficulties with travel and other aspects of daily life following the Sept. 11 attacks. When the current lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. government’s list of known and suspected terrorists, was filed in 2016, Barakat’s story at the time showed how a California toddler had been placed on the watchlist as an infant.
Source work and methodical reporting enabled Barakat to act on the revealing court filing, even as other media lost track of the case.
His source relationships put Barakat in a position this month to act on the court documents revealing the sharing of the watchlist as soon as they were filed in PACER online court records, even after other reporters had lost track of the case as it stretched over two years.
For his methodical document work and source-building that helped hold the federal government accountable, Barakat wins this week’s Best of the States award.