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Deja Vu, Plus 20,000 New Records

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November 8, 2007

Hanging around Capitol Hill tends to induce a feeling of déjà vu. The House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing today on the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) Watch List – a rerun of last month’s hearing in the Senate on the same topic. Little about the watch list has changed since then, except that it has grown by another 20,000 records, and counting. At the rate they’re going, the list will hit 1 million just in time for the holiday travel season! You can bet TSC’s checking it twice!

Today’s panel was an all-government outfit (the ACLU submitted a statement for the record, available here). They, along with members of the committee, had lots of bad things to say about how the watch list functions – Chairman Bennie Thompson bemoaned the fact that his colleague, Rep. John Lewis, shares a name with a suspected terrorist and has problems every time he goes to Reagan National Airport. But no one questioned the fundamental premise behind the watch list: that we know who the terrorists are and if we have a big enough watch list, we’ll eventually catch them all.

There are ways to improve how we use the list. Better redress procedures, for example, might help prevent people who have already been cleared, like Rep. Lewis, from having to face repeated hassles at the airport. But as we learned this week, the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to clear people has stalled under the burden of over 15,000 people demanding to be taken off the list. This backlog is unlikely to be resolved if the list itself continues to balloon. The only way to fix the watch list is to pare it down to people who actually pose a threat to aviation security.

Interestingly, the reach of the watch list goes beyond aviation and border control. There was considerable discussion in today’s hearings on whether the watch list should be checked for anyone trying to purchase a firearm. One can imagine the watch list, once thought of as merely a “No-Fly List,” being used increasingly as a screening method to determine eligibility for a wide array of privileges and rights. A move in this direction would make it a true blacklist, with hundreds of thousands of Americans wrongly denied full participation in society because of erroneous placement on the list.

TSC Director Leonard Boyle actually did a great deal to illuminate the problem with the watch list. When asked why the list is not used to screen train travelers (several bills have been introduced by Democrats to do just that), he responded that anyone who has ever been running late to catch an Amtrak train knows that’s not feasible. Of course, he meant that there is no mechanism for screening each passenger as they get on the train, but this insight can be applied to the watch list as a whole. As it continues to expand, the list becomes less and less reliable as a security measure because the system is overloaded with false positives. So a bloated watch list is not only a problem for privacy and civil liberties, it’s not feasible to use it as a security tool either.

It is certainly encouraging that Congress is conducting oversight hearings on half-baked Bush administration policies. But it’s time for some action: the watch list should be dumped altogether and TSC should start from scratch. Otherwise we risk repeating very recent history.

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