The Million-Man Match: ACLU and TSA Debate Extent, Problems of Terrorist Watch List

The American Civil Liberties Union says the government’s terrorist watch list, a consolidated record of alleged and suspected terrorists, now contains more than 1 million names. The Homeland Security Department says the ACLU is way off the mark.

“It is so bloated as to be ineffective, at best, likely useless and perhaps even harmful by creating its own security weaknesses,” said Caroline Frederickson, director of the ACLU Washington legislative office, at a press conference Monday. “The list is unfair to travelers, law-abiding Americans and for security screeners who have to work with this ridiculous system.”

The Transportation Security Administration says the list, which combines several law enforcement and intelligence agencies records and is administered by the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, includes the identities of less than half as many people as the ACLU claims — 400,000 individuals, only 1 in 20 of whom are American citizens.

The ACLU bases the 1 million name figure on a September 2007 Justice Department inspector general report that found more than 700,000 records in the list and a growth rate of 20,000 per month.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU technology and liberty program, said the number of names is “shrouded in mystery” and impossible to peg because the list is not publicly available.

TSA, in a blog post responding to the ACLU news conference, pointed out that “a new record is created for every alias, date-of-birth, passport and other identifying information for watch listed suspects. The ACLU does not account for the name-by-name scrub that took place in the Fall of 2007 by all government agencies involved with the lists through the Terrorist Screening Center.”

The TSA also derides the ACLU for making little distinction between the terrorist watch list and the no-fly list, which it says includes 50,000 individuals.

Methodology aside, the approximated total, whether 400,000 or one million, “vastly underestimates the numbers of Americans affected,” according to Steinhardt.

Steinhardt says that because of common names with multiple references on the watch list, tens of millions of Americans could be “caught up in the web of suspicion.”

People can’t ask the government whether they are on the watch list. The ACLU says, however, that if they assume from a pattern of repeated travel impediments or TSA questioning that they are named, there is no adequate process to review the reasons for inclusion or petition for removal.

Several public figures have either made that assumption or been told that their names are close to terror watch list records.

“The list of persons who have been caught in the watch list is as comic as it is tragic,” said Frederickson.

The most notorious inclusion was Nelson Mandela, former South African president, and other members of the African National Congress, the nation’s governing party. On July 2 President Bush signed into law (PL 110-257) legislation that directed DOJ to remove Mandela and other ANC member names from the list. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the situation was “rather embarrassing.”

Members of Congress, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy , D-Mass., and Reps. John Lewis , D-Ga., Don Young , R-Alaska, and Loretta Sanchez , D-Calif., have also had difficulties traveling in connection to the watch list.

Change in Hands of Congress
The ACLU prescribes a number of changes for the watch list and it says only Congress can compel the executive branch to overhaul the system.

Fredrickson said U.S. courts have been “hamstrung” by the government’s invocation of “state secrets privilege” to classify the watch list information.

The group says people should be able to access and challenge data on which the listing is based. There should also be narrow criteria for addition of names and that the list should be limited to “the worst of the worst.”

The ACLU also announced Monday that it will create an online forum for people to register complaints with the list.

Timothy D. Sparapani, ACLU senior legislative counsel, said that a bill (HR 4179), which the House passed June 18, would provide those falsely identified by the list access to redress. But Sparapani says it does not “ask the central question of whether an omnibus terrorist database is necessary.”

He says that universal and robust aviation passenger screening and security enhancements such as reinforced cockpit doors make a broad suspected terrorist catalogue inappropriate and ineffective.

Steinhardt said the “most dangerous [terrorists] aren’t even on the list because [TSA] doesn’t trust the airlines with that level of information.”

Caitlin Webber can be reached at [email protected]

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