Privacy SOS

Terrorist watch lists are supposed to flag terrorist suspects. But far from pinpointing actual threats, they are becoming a watchword for database mistakes and information overload.

According to the December 30, 2010 Washington Post, “a single source tip, as long as it is deemed credible, can lead to a name being placed on the watch list.”

The National Counterterrorism Center which was created in 2004 to promote intelligence-sharing, evaluation and dissemination maintains the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) system.  It has been plagued with crippling technical problems. These include fundamental design flaws that made the data difficult or even impossible to search, its tendency to crash, the fact that “there is no fool proof way to ensure that only good data gets into the TIDE system and unqualified data stays out” and the failure to properly process tens of thousands of “potentially vital CIA messages.” According to one official at the Center, a single intelligence agency can receive 8,000 terrorism messages per day involving up to 15,000 names, and it “will be a challenge into perpetuity” for the Center to connect related threat information.

At the time when the name and biographical information of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be  “underwear bomber,” were deposited in the TIDE system in 2009, it contained some 550,000 identities. 

Abdulmutallab’s name was never moved to the master terrorist watch list, maintained by the FBI at the Terrorist Screening Center. The Terrorist Screening Database contains over a million names (including aliases) and nearly half a million identities. There are reportedly about 25,000 US citizens and legal permanent residents on the list. 

According to the November 1, 2009 Washington Post, the names of 1,600 people are entered into this database every day.  They are selected by the FBI for inclusion from the large number forwarded by Terrorist Screening Center partner agencies, including 17 foreign governments and all 72 fusion centers that cull names from “suspicious activity reports.” The FBI decides on a daily basis who should be added to the names on the ‘no fly’ list, which are believed to be within the 5,000 to 8,000 range, or put on a list of about 14,000 names of “selectees” – people targeted for additional, time-consuming, airport screening whenever they attempt to fly.

In January 2012, the Post reported that in the year following the Abudulmutallab mistake the no-fly list grew from about 10,000 to over 20,000 names. Though Bin Laden is dead at US hands, and the CIA claims there are fewer than 100 serious al-Qaida terrorists in the world, the terror-watch lists are exploding in growth. That's partially because agencies began adding names of people not considered threats simply to aviation, but labeled as threats more generally speaking. (If the FBI or DHS have any hand in determining who constitutes a threat, it might be you.)

Stories abound of “misidentification” and other errors in these lists. People with the names “Robert Johnson,” “John Williams” and “Gary Smith”  endure long delays at airports.  Congressman John Lewis and Senator Edward Kennedy both were on a “selectee” list at one time, as was former Clinton administration Assistant Attorney General Jim Robinson, who continued to be singled out at airports in 2008 despite having his top-security clearance renewed in 2007. Even children are apparently on the list.  Eight-year-old Mikey Hicks has received special scrutiny at airports since he was two years old, according to the January 13, 2010 New York Times

How do Americans get on the list? There is some evidence that the “wrong” political views can be a factor: the ACLU successfully represented anti-war activists from Northern California who were targeted at airports.  According to The New York Times (April 6, 2010), suspicious activity reports filed by the police and tips called in by the public can lead to “dots” being wrongly connected, as in the case of Erich Scherfen, a Persian Gulf war veteran and pilot who converted to Islam and married a woman who was born in Pakistan.  When he removed a broken back seat from his car, a co-worker told the state police that he had “retrofitted the family car to carry bombs.”

Getting onto a watch list is a good deal easier than getting off, which might be virtually impossible given the apparent existence of “shadow” lists that continue to flag “suspicious” people even if they are removed from a master list. As many as 80,000 people have tried to clear their names, while reports by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General have condemned the huge number of “false positives” and the fact that certain known terrorists have never made it onto the list. 

They may not be able to fly, but people on the watch lists can still buy AK-47s and military grade explosives within the United States. A May 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office found that between 2004 and 2010, people on terrorist watch lists were involved in explosives or firearms background checks some 1,225 times.  In 91 percent of the cases, they were allowed to make their purchases because they either had no record of felonies or were not illegal immigrants. 

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is among the Members of Congress who has resisted passing legislation that would prohibit anyone on the terrorist watch lists from buying weapons. In response to the GAO report, he argued that “the watch list has so many problems with it…that I think it’s not appropriate to go down the road we’re going because a constitutional right is involved” (ABC News, May 5, 2010).

While thousands of Americans find themselves listed as “suspects” in the bloated watchlists, the “constitutional right” to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is given less weight than the right to bear arms.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.