PJ Media

Tweaking the Terrorist Watch List

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sounded the alarm that the government’s terrorist watch list has reached one million names:

The nation’s terrorist watch list has hit one million names, according to a tally maintained by the American Civil Liberties Union based upon the government’s own reported numbers for the size of the list.

“Members of Congress, nuns, war heroes and other ‘suspicious characters,’ with names like Robert Johnson and Gary Smith, have become trapped in the Kafkaesque clutches of this list, with little hope of escape,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Congress needs to fix it, the Terrorist Screening Center needs to fix it, or the next president needs to fix it, but it has to be done soon.”

Painfully, I must agree with this organization. They are correct in pointing out that there are many flaws with this program that need to be fixed. However, I believe there are reasons to be skeptical about many of the claims and exaggerations from this purely partisan organization.

The ACLU makes many good points on this issue that we can not ignore. The sheer size of this list is something that should concern us. A list this large would be a bureaucratic nightmare to manage, and many mistaken identities are reported to happen with this program. I also agree with the ACLU that many innocent people are greatly inconvenienced by this well-intentioned but mistake-prone system. There is no doubt this program needs to be fixed.

On September 16, 2003, Homeland Security Presidential Directive-6 ordered that the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) combine all existing government terrorist watch lists to screen individuals trying to enter the U.S. This combined list became known as the consolidated watch list, and is the single list used to protect our airlines and port-of-entries.

Many people were shocked when artist Yusuf Islam, formerly known as pop singer Cat Stevens, was deported after appearing on the watch list. Others pointed out several logical reasons why the U.S. had him on the list, such as his donating thousands of dollars to the terrorist organization Hamas. Other high profile characters and ordinary citizens have found their names on the list, and many have been delayed or even denied their flights.

I have given the ACLU credit on this issue; now I will give reasons to be skeptical. The claim that there are one million individuals on the terror watch list is a myth created through the exaggerated “estimations” of the ACLU. The truth is there are less than 400,000 individuals on the consolidated terrorist watch list, and less than 50,000 on the no-fly and selectee lists.

Assumptions by the ACLU were probably based on a 2007 report claiming the estimate of 700,000 possible records on the watch list and growing by an average of 20,000 per month. Apparently, they didn’t take into account that the numbers do not necessarily represent actual individuals. A new “record” is created for every alias, date-of-birth, passport, spelling variations, and other identifying information for watch listed suspects. Furthermore, they did not take into account the name-by-name scrub that took place in 2007. Notably, 95 percent of those on the consolidated watch list are not American citizens and the majority are not even in the U.S. The shocking numbers the ACLU is broadcasting are simply inflated and dishonest figures.

The ACLU’s most valid point against this program is the misidentification of travelers’ names with those similar on the watch list. Their claims that individuals such as Senator Edward Kennedy are on the watch list are untrue, however there are common and shared names on it. TSA is implementing a program to reduce this problem by taking the matching responsibilities away from the airlines and putting them in-house, where additional data elements can help curtail inconveniences for these individuals.

Additionally, the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) provides a single point of contact for individuals having inquiries, seeking resolution regarding difficulties, or correcting erroneous information. I also admit some of the suggestions the ACLU offer are reasonable. Ensuring initial accuracy on the list through tight criteria and rigorous procedures should be taken seriously.

The watch list is not a perfected tool against terrorism. It is very valuable and it keeps real threats off the airplanes everyday. I’d rather be personally misidentified as someone on the list and suffer the delays and interrogations than to miss one real terrorist. This is a necessary tool needing a little tweaking.

The ACLU’s dishonesty and tendency to exaggerate only hurt their credibility, especially when they have legitimate concerns and reasonable suggestions towards solutions. Truthfully, the picture has been distorted; one million people are not barred from flying. Why can’t the ACLU just tell the truth? In this worrisome time, the American people need to be given the facts — not a line of bull.