ACLU Skeptical About Latest DHS Watch List Band-Aid

April 30, 2008 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

CONTACT: (202) 675-2312,

WASHINGTON, DC – The American Civil Liberties Union today expressed skepticism about the announcement yesterday by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of a new program intended to remedy the nation’s disastrous watch list system.

“Creating a gigantic new database with Americans’ personal information should not be the solution to the government’s own incompetence with the terrorist watch list system,” said ACLU Technology and Liberty Program Director Barry Steinhardt. “One privacy failure should not beget another. The government needs to fix the root problem of a mismanaged, out-of-control watch list, rather than just collecting more data and creating a new database to patch over the real problem.”

On Monday, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that his department was creating a new database of people who have proven that they are not terrorists, despite being confused with a name on the watch list.

“It’s great if the security agencies are really taking action to fix their out-of-control watch list – but it’s far from clear that they’re taking the right action, or real action,” said Steinhardt. “What they need to do before anything else is shrink the watch list down to a manageable size. No one believes that there are a million real terrorists out there.”

The nation’s terrorist watch list system has been a persistent problem throughout much of the Bush Administration. The Inspector General of the Justice Department reported in 2007 that the nation’s terrorist watch list was growing by an average of over 20,000 records per month, and that, as of April 2007, it had over 700,000 records. An online ACLU “Watch List Counter” based on those numbers indicates that, as of today, the list stands at over 958,000 names and will soon reach a million.

In addition, because many of the records on the list are extremely common names such as Robert Johnson, Gary Smith, and John Williams, far more than a million people are affected by the list.

“This is just the latest in a long line of supposed redress mechanisms provided by DHS for innocent people caught up in its ham-handed, ID-based security schemes,” said ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Timothy Sparapani. “Everyone should remember that despite a lot of sweet-sounding promises, these efforts have never provided effective, meaningful redress so far. They’re mere Band-Aids.”

Steinhardt also asked whether the new database plan was even realistic. Under a scheme proposed several years ago called CAPPS II, the airlines would have been required to collect new personal information from flyers, and while to the layman that sounded easy to do, reliable estimates of the cost of updating the complex, interlocking computer systems that make up the world’s airline reservations system were in the billions.

“The devil is in the details,” said Sparapani. “If this turns out not to be a technically or financially realistic burden to place on the airlines, that would make this little more than a public relations ploy with no chance of actually helping anyone. We don’t want to see DHS shift blame for this mess and point fingers at airlines that can’t reasonably be expected to fix this problem.” Sparapani continued, “The airlines don’t need the burden of a giant unfunded mandate just now – like the rest of America, they just need the watch list to be fixed.”

“This step is just typical of the haphazard, ill-conceived way in which the Bush Administration has approached the task of tightening security after 9/11,” said Sparapani. “It has placed a misguided emphasis on ID-based security, which never can be very effective. And it has never thought through the implications of that approach for the millions of innocent people who are unfairly or mistakenly caught up in these systems.”

More information about watch lists, including the ACLU Watch List Counter, is at:

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release