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White House Moves To Block Creation Of Muslim Registry

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama has made it harder for his successor to deliver on a campaign proposal. Donald Trump said he wanted to register Muslims in the U.S. As president, he could have used an existing database. It was launched after 9/11 but later suspended. Well, today the Obama administration did away with the regulations that made that program possible. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In the weeks after 9/11, with the nation worried about another terrorist attack, the George W. Bush administration required men from 24 Muslim countries to register with the government when they arrived, while they were here and again when they left. It was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, NSEERS. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a human rights lawyer, represented many of the men during the registration process, standing alongside as federal agents asked them questions.

BANAFSHEH AKHLAGHI: Do you eat halal meat? What was the last movie that you watched? When do you go to mosque? Which mosque do you go to?

GJELTEN: The Obama administration suspended the program after concluding the same information was being collected through other database programs. Counterterrorism experts said it alienated many patriotic Muslims and did not produce worthwhile leads. But the program was not abolished, and with the stroke of his pen, a president Donald Trump could have reinstated it.

JONATHAN TURLEY: NSEERS was basically an empty building that the Trump administration could have moved right into.

GJELTEN: Jonathan Turley, who specializes in national security law at George Washington University, says NSEERS could have served Trump's purposes had he wanted to reregister Muslims. By canceling the NSEERS regulations, the Obama administration made that impossible.

TURLEY: What they did is they just bulldozed that building. So they have to build another one.

GJELTEN: Meaning the Trump team would have to write and publish new regulations for a new program - totally doable, Turley says, but there'd have to be an opportunity for public comment, and that could be time-consuming.

TURLEY: You have a lot of advocacy groups on both sides that weight in, suggest changes. Those changes have to be considered. And then the agency has to come back and explain why the final regulations look the way they do.

GJELTEN: Among those who would speak out - the American Civil Liberties Union. Hina Shamsi is the national security director there.

HINA SHAMSI: We would absolutely oppose this program. And as we have said, if this form of discriminatory registry is put in place, we stand ready to sue and to challenge it.

GJELTEN: A new registry could bring out law-abiding Muslims. But human rights lawyer Banafsheh Akhlaghi says it would probably not reveal the would-be terrorists the government should be worried about.

AKHLAGHI: They aren't going to voluntarily come into a federal building, give you their fingerprints, give you their name and their identity and allow you to take photographs of them. The good guys do that.

GJELTEN: Asked today what effect the cancellation of the NSEERS regulations would have, Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller said the incoming administration would deal with it. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.