Frustration and anger has grown in Congress during the last year that government watch lists are riddled with inaccuracies, especially in the aviation arena where innocent U.S. citizens and even lawmakers themselves have been detained because their names appeared on one of the lists.
"If we're going to have a watch list that works, we should fine-tune it," Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said during a June hearing.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said in February that his wife, Catherine, was questioned at airport checkpoints because her name matched that of a singer formerly known as Cat Stevens. And well-known Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, and civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., also have said they were wrongly placed on a watch list and stopped many times.
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department was unable to provide comment as of Tuesday afternoon. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Rice last January announced that the government would "accelerate efforts to establish a government-wide traveler screening redress process to resolve questions if travelers are incorrectly selected for additional screening."
Last Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union called for the government to shut down its aviation watch lists. The demand came in response to a CBS "60 Minutes" report disclosing that the lists include many common names along with people who are dead, in prison, or are international dignitaries, such as the president of Bolivia. The report also said the lists do not include the names of some suspected terrorists because agencies do not want to share them outside the government.
"Until Homeland Security can figure out a way to create a genuine, narrow, targeted list of real terrorists rather than harming innocent people, Congress needs to shut this monstrosity down," said Tim Sparapani, ACLU legislative counsel.
The Homeland Security Department's Transportation Security Administration operates three aviation watch lists: one with names of individuals who are not allowed to fly; one with names who need secondary screening; and one with names who have been cleared through a redress process. The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center is responsible for managing and consolidating all government watch lists.
The FBI and TSA both issued statements in the last two days defending watch lists as valuable counterterrorism tools and clarifying current redress procedures. A TSA spokeswoman said about 35,000 people have sought redress for mistakenly being on an aviation watch list. Both TSA and the FBI declined to reveal names or how many people are on any of the lists, saying that information is secret.