Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 15, 2006

WaPo looks at terrorist watch lists

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Privacy and Security — by Christian Beckner on February 15, 2006

The Washington Post has a front-page story on Wednesday about the expanding terrorist watch list in the federal government, led by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The story notes that the central terror watch list has quadrupled in size since the fall of 2003, and now contains 325,000 names. The article does a good job of explaining the flow of watch list information within the federal government: from intelligence sources to the NCTC, then out to the Terrorist Screening Center, where it’s combined with domestic watch list information from the FBI and disseminated to system users such as TSA for aviation security and the State Department for consular screening.

My initial reaction is that this is a “good news” story: here’s a case where intelligence and homeland security agencies are working together and integrating their information flows. Effective watch list integration and operations are key requirements for homeland security, and this article gives me hope that the system for terrorist screening is getting closer to where it needs to be.

Not surprisingly, however, the article quotes numerous critics of these activities. For example:

Civil liberties advocates and privacy experts said they were troubled by the size of the NCTC database, and they said it further heightens their concerns that such government terrorism lists include the names of large numbers of innocent people. Timothy Sparapani, legislative counsel for privacy rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the numbers “shocking but, unfortunately, not surprising.”

“We have lists that are having baby lists at this point; they’re spawning faster than rabbits,” Sparapani said. “If we have over 300,000 known terrorists who want to do this country harm, we’ve got a much bigger problem than deciding which names go on which list. But I highly doubt that is the case.”

Of course there are innocent people on these watch lists. No one should be surprised by that fact. But that’s no reason to mock and condemn the entire watch list system. Instead, it should be a cause to do two things: develop an effective redress system (which the government is now working to do, with a deadline for the end of 2006); and ensure that there is discernment built into the field data (based on the type of threat posed, the quality of the source information, etc.), so that system users don’t have to treat everyone on the lists the same way. If these things are done, then I think it’s possible to have effective terrorist screening in a way that causes little or no disruption to civil liberties.

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