Small, focused watch lists are better for civil liberties and for security.
Our country's watchlist system is grossly bloated and unfair with over a milllion names -- including many unlikely suspects -- and not effective as a security measure.
To be effective, and to be fair, terrorist watch lists must be tightly focused on true terrorists who pose a genuine threat.
The uncontroversial contention that Osama Bin Laden and a handful of other known terrorists should not be allowed on an aircraft is being used to create a monster that goes far beyond what ordinary Americans think of when they think about a "terrorist watch list." If the government is going to rely on these kinds of lists, they need checks and balances to ensure that innocent people are protected.
- Bloated. In May 2009, the Inspector General of the Justice Department found that 35% of the nominations to the lists were outdated, many people were not removed in a timely manner, and tens of thousands of names were placed on the list without predicate. Instead of clogging the system with over a million names, we should significantly pare down the number of people on the list so that potentially dangerous individuals are consistently stopped before they board planes.
- Unfair. We can't have terrorist watch lists that affect people's rights without due process -- the right of innocent people to challenge their inclusion through an adversarial proceeding and get off the lists. But no such system has been created. A September 2009 report by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security found that the process for clearing innocent travelers from the list is a complete mess. The consequences of being mistakenly added to a terror watch list can be more severe than simply missing a plane. Law enforcement routinely run names against the watchlists for matters as mundane as traffic stops, and innocent individuals may be harassed even if they don’t attempt to fly.
- Bad for security. Bloated watch lists waste screeners' time and divert their energies from looking for true terrorists. In a report from the Virginia Fusion Center leaked in April 2009, it was revealed that at least 414 encounters between suspected al-Qa’ida members and law enforcement officials were documented in the Commonwealth in 2007. Few believe there are actually more than 400 al-Qa’ida members in Virginia; more likely there were just 400+ false alarms related to bad watch list data -- which wasted innocent Virginians’ time and distracted law enforcement from their mission.
The Government's Own Damning Assessment of the Watchlist System
Review of the Terrorist Screening Center's Efforts to Support the Secure Flight Program (Redacted for Public Release), Justice Department, Office of the Inspector General, Audit Report 05-34, August 2005
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Terrorist Watchlist Nomination Practices, Justice Department, Office of the Inspector General, Audit Report 09-25, May 2009
DHS Challenges in Consolidating Terrorist Watch List Information, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, OIG-04-31, August 2004
Terrorist Watch Lists Should Be Consolidated to Promote Better Integration and Sharing, GAO Report to Congressional Requesters, GAO-03-322, April 2003
Congressional Memo Regarding Technical Flaws in the Terrorist Watch List, House Committee on Science and Technology, August 2008
If you believe you have been harmed due to a U.S. government watch list, while flying or anywhere else, use this form to share your story.