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Thursday, July 17, 2008
By Steven L. Taylor

On Monday I noted an ACLU press release that estimated that the TSA’s terrorist watchlist had grown to over 1,000,000 names. A reader e-mailed to note that the TSA says that the list is only at roughly 400,000 (WaTi: ACLU errs in list of names:

Officials with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice responded by saying the ACLU incorrectly equated the one million “records,” or pieces of information about each suspect, with the number of individuals on the list, which they say is 400,000.

The ACLU apparently misunderstood the inspector general’s report to issue its claim; however, the document itself makes clear the distinction between “records” and “suspected terrorists.”

“The reported figure represents the number of records in the system,” the report said. “This does not equate to the number of known or suspected terrorists in the system, as a single person may have multiple records to account for the use of aliases, alternate identities and multiple identifying documents.”

However, I would note that the ACLU wasn’t really all that off. The problem is that a given name may lead to the detention of an innocent person, whether the name (or record, to be specific) is on the list because it is an alias or because it is a real name.

For example (via CNN):

The Justice Department’s former top criminal prosecutor says the government’s terror watch list likely has caused thousands of innocent Americans to be questioned, searched or otherwise hassled.

Former Assistant Attorney General Jim Robinson would know: He’s one of them.

Robinson joined another mistaken-identity American and the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday to urge fixing the list that’s supposed to identify suspected terrorists.

“It’s a pain in the neck, and significantly interferes with my travel arrangements,” said Robinson, the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division during the Clinton administration. He believes his name matches that of someone who was put on the list in early 2005, and is routinely delayed while flying — despite having his own government top-secret security clearances renewed last year.

It doesn’t matter if “Jim Robinson” is one of the names of the suspected terrorists or if it an alias of one of the suspected terrorists, the one being harassed at the airport is not a terrorist (indeed, quite the opposite).

Another example would be CNN reporter Drew Griffin, who found out he was on the list roughly two months after a report on the TSA’s air marshal program. From CNN (Formal calls for probe into reporter’s name on no-fly list:

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about “a curious and interesting and troubling phenomenon” that CNN Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin was added to the list.

“My question is, why would Drew Griffin’s name come on the watch list, post-his investigation of TSA?” Jackson Lee said.

“What is the basis of this sudden recognition that Drew Griffin is a terrorist? Are we targeting people because of their critique or criticism?”

In response, Chertoff said it was “not my understanding the reporter was put on,” but that Griffin may share a name with someone put on the list.

“We do have circumstances where we have name mismatches,” he said.

Setting aside the curious timing of Griffin encountering problems with the list, the response from Chertoff underscores the entire problem, as he makes it sounds as if a terrorist’s name/alias is on the list it will only be used to stop the terrorist and that it would never affect an innocent persons, except by some big mistake. However, a name on a piece of paper is a fairly blunt tool. Indeed, by definition the more “records” one has on file, the more innocent people will be harassed.

As such, the following isn’t that helpful:

Federal officials who manage the list say the ACLU’s claim is exaggerated, and that about 400,000 names are currently on the list. The Terrorist Screening Center, a division of the FBI, said about 5 percent of those on the list are Americans, and most aren’t even in the United States.

If a terrorist suspect named “John Smith” is thought to be a terrorist from Ireland, somehow I don’t think that means that all the John Smiths in the US who fly daily will be left alone. Like so much of the logic that undergirds the administration’s GWOT policies, the assumption here seems to be that only the guilty will be effected, yet such an outcome is not the case.

What I would like to know (and I am sincere in the question): has the TSA’S terrorist watchlist actually resulted in the detention or apprehension of any actual terrorist, and if so, how many? Further, how many innocent persons have had to deal with the TSA because of the unfortunate coincidence between their name and that on a list?

These are not unreasonable questions, and they do get to the efficacy of the policy. Really, a name alone is an insufficient tool, and yet clearly a name has been all that was needed to detain people.

There are multiple examples of people caught in this web:

Committee members noted during the meeting that Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, is also on the no-fly list and has been trying for years to get removed.

“He’s still having trouble,” said committee chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, showing a letter from Lewis.

“And according to this letter, it’s still not happening,” Thompson said, “even to the point that the department gave him a letter attesting that he was John Lewis and he should be allowed to get on planes.” (source)

If a well known member of Congress and a former DoJ official with a top-secret security clearance can’t get relief, what chance does an average citizen have?

audits of the watch list over the last several years, however, have concluded that it has mistakenly flagged innocent people whose names are similar to those on it. More than 30,000 airline passengers had asked the Homeland Security Department to clear their names from the list as of October 2006. (source)

Is this really the way we want things to work in the United States of America?

Filed under: Uncategorized | Comments/Trackbacks (3)|
The views expressed in the comments are the sole responsibility of the person leaving those comments. They do not reflect the opinion of the author of PoliBlog, nor have they been vetted by the author.

3 Responses to “Back to the Watchlist”

  1. Rob Says:

    Thank God, we only have months left of this regime, and we can get back to being Americans again after December.
    All the government agencies need a full and hard enema, to flush out all the Bush people who have sought to destroy the American way of life.
    I don’t believe it’s the Terrorist who hate the American way of life, it’s Bush and all his cronies that hate our way of life and want to destroy it.

  2. Barry Says:

    Yes, it’s the way that enough people want to live. Until, of course, it’s their, ah, ‘ox’ being gored. I tell ya, it’d be fun to do this stuff against the sort of right-wing militia scum which will pop up in 2009. A little indefinite detention, a little ‘extreme interrogation’, banning them (effectively) from air travel, shutting down all bank accounts, f*cking busineses who do business with these guys, or employ them,… :)

  3. H. B. Says:

    I’d REALLY like to think “it’ll all be over” come January, especially if Obama is our new prez. Sorry, it won’t.

    Those laws will still BE there. It’ll be up to the next administration to peel off the parts of them that erode our liberties, retaining ONLY those parts that can do good and no harm.

    Obama will have an Augean Stables of garbage to be cleaned out before he can really settle down to being president. But, after all, who else, but black folks, have historically been called upon to clean up the leavings of their masters? It wouldn’t surprise me if Obama already has some practice at it.

    Actually, it’s these next few months we need to worry about MOST OF ALL. Taking the attitude that we only need to “wait long enough” is ignoring some very grave dangers.

    Assassinations happen, you know. And since every one which has occurred in my lifetime (I’m 64) has been a “hit” on a DEMOCRAT, we ought to know better than to turn our eyes away from the GOP for even a moment. And isn’t it odd how other things happen to confuse the matter, and that ultimately none of them ever get truly resolved?

    Obama’s smart enough, though, to know what he’s up against, but still, when it comes to one’s own skin, it’s sometimes easy to think, “it won’t happen to me.” Probably a protective mechanism in our species. I genuinely fear for his life.

    I’m not sure I trust the Secret Service assigned to him, either. After all, who is THEIR Commander in Chief? Nuff said.

    There’s still time to invade Iran, start a Big Bang going in the Mideast (maybe even an exchange of nukes), declare emergency powers, cancel both the elections AND the Congress, and remain in power indefinitely. Think it can’t happen?

    If you think it can’t, ask yourself THIS question. Can the honchos in this administration AFFORD to allow someone like Obama to gain access to every top secret document, to every bit of the evidence they weren’t able to destroy? The only real question mark is what they plan to do about it. And when.

    We can’t be out of the woods, not when most of the country is run by the policies of the neocon cabal, called the “Council on Foreign Relations.” (Urge you to do some research on that organization.) They’ll be able to keep on doing it, no matter who the president is, because they have their hands on almost every major media source, as well as more governments than we’d like to think about.

    I’d even make a guess that it was they who were behind the 20 years of “silent genocide” in the Sudan, which has not, even today, been called anything but a “civil war.” All our media want you to think Darfur “just happened” in a vacuum, when it’s actually a mild “Chapter 2″ of the earlier - and vastly more brutal - genocide. (2.5 million slaughtered in 20 years) Somehow, something was keeping the public of the entire free world in the dark. It had to be a coordinated effort, among both nations and major media sources throughout the entire free world. These people in the CFR could have pulled it off. I don’t know who else COULD.

    As someone already said before me: “Be afraid. Be VERY afraid.”


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