BABY DOE WAS 7 months old when his troubles with the U.S. government began. His mother was taking him on a flight when security officials stopped them at an airport. He was patted down and subjected to “chemical testing.” His mother’s bag was searched. His diapers were examined. Unbeknownst to the family from California, four letters on the infant’s boarding pass — “SSSS” — had singled him out as a particularly dangerous class of individual: a “known or suspected terrorist.”

Four years later, Baby Doe, as he’s identified in court documents, is part of a class-action lawsuit taking aim at the federal government’s sweeping terrorist watchlisting system. His ordeal is one of 18 included in the suit, filed Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia, by the Michigan branch of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. The rights group claims its plaintiffs’ collective experiences are the consequence of “an injustice of historic proportions.”

“Through extra-judicial and secret means,” the suit alleges, “the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse as a result of the shockingly large federal watchlists that now include hundreds of thousands of individuals.”

Before September 11, 2001, the U.S. government had a list of 16 people prohibited from boarding flights due to suspected terrorism links. By 2013, that number had swelled to 47,000. Today, the watchlisting apparatus includes both the no-fly list and the selectee list — which triggers the enhanced airport screening Baby Doe’s family allegedly experienced — as well as other lesser-known, though much larger, secret government watchlists.

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