The ACLU estimates that there are now over one million names on the nation’s terrorist watch list. The Inspector General’s estimates are closer to 1.1 million identities. Many names are duplicates and many are wrong with no systematic way of removing them. 35% of the domestic entries have no known link to terrorist activities. Hundreds of thousands of foreign citizens were put on the list because they are from Iraq and Afghanistan. The watch list data is significantly peppered by inconsistencies in the way that names were added or not added (“nominated” in IG parlance) to the list. New information regarding names on the list, either to bolster or eliminate suspicion, was mishandled two-thirds of the time. The incredibly slow removal of names from the list is in directly violation of policy and has led to problems at border crossings and airport security lines, both in stopping ordinary people with no ties to terrorism from traveling while letting other suspicious individuals through.
I found this report startling for two very different reasons:
- That any list of this size (and growing at upwards of 20,000 entries per month) could be considered useful to agencies trying to use it as a screening filter is absurd. Anyone who works with large databases recognizes that data accuracy is paramount, and even small errors have great consequences. An untrusted list is an ineffective list.
- That this list could be grown so quickly to so many is about as Kafkaesque as it gets.
The terrorist watch list is a great example of what happens where paranoia is substituted for rational thought. The creation of the list and the accumulation of names ranks right up there with the McCarthy communists and Nixon’s enemies. I look back with a historical perspective and am embarrassed by how our government ran itself at the height of the cold war and during the Watergate scandal; twenty years from now the Bush Administration’s creation of the terrorist watch list will end up on the list of historical embarrassments as well.