A not-so-exclusive list

Two points about that disclosure by the Government Accountability Office that the government’s terrorist watch list has more than 755,000 names and is growing by 200,000 names a year.

First, if there really are that many people out there actively seeking to do us harm at home, we’re in real trouble.

Second, if the list isn’t accurate but is simply a grab-all list of names that the government doesn’t really know what to do with, then it’s a massive waste of time, not only for the people needlessly pulled aside and questioned at airports but for the security screeners whose skills could be put to better use elsewhere.

As funny as it was to see Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of America’s most recognizable political celebrities, regularly pulled aside because his name — or that of another Ted Kennedy — was flagged, a limitless list of unedited and potentially inaccurate names poses real problems.

The list could become so large and so unwieldy as to be functionally useless; it would be the security equivalent of showing up on Google. But there is talk of using the list to screen applicants for security-sensitive jobs in private industry, in which case it could become a de facto black list. Workers would be denied jobs and never know why.

The rapid growth of the terrorist watch list suggests that the criteria for getting on it are pretty loose. The cumbersome size of the list also suggests that once a name gets on the list it’s pretty tough, maybe impossible, to get off it. This is a version of the government’s tendency to indiscriminately classify documents and then become so overwhelmed it can’t declassify them.

To be credible to the public and of genuine use to security screeners, the list must be pruned, pared and verified until it contains only the names of those who genuinely bear watching.


  1. Elmo

    My guess is that it’s being turned into a way to harass anyone who speaks out against the Bushies. Of course, given the need to suppress the NASA study of air safety, being denied the right to fly without being hassled by the man could be considered a gift.

  2. JoyfulC

    How useless! Do you think the terrorists use their real names? Yeesh!

    And especially now that they know that there *is* a terror watch list?

    IDs are still too easy to fake and there’s no such thing as a non-porous border. People even managed to get over the wall in Berlin, for goodness sake! For the life of me, I can’t understand why so much money is being wasted on such nonsensical nonsolutions, while serious considerations — such as improving security at chemical plants, ensuring our infrastructure is well-maintained, and such — are almost totally ignored.

    Alice-in-Wonderland saw more sanity than we have in recent years.

  3. eric

    To be credible to the public and of genuine use to security screeners, the list must be pruned, pared and verified until it contains only the names of those who genuinely bear watching.

    Problem is that you cannot make such a statement to this–and very likely the next–administration because they actually believe that everyone genuinely bears watching.

  4. barak

    I am on this list. I am now a 2 1/2 year member of the Terrorist Watch List.
    I did nothing illegal, immoral, or even out of line but suddenly I was having trouble booking etickets, or getting through the faster lines at the airports.
    Strangely enough, there is no consistency. At some airports I can breeze through, at others I am directed from counter to counter like a tennis ball bouncing endlessly in a sphere. It is pathetic, inconsistent, and blatant harassment.
    What I did to get onto the TWL is still a mystery. Once you are on, you stay on unless you have the clout of Ted Kennedy. It is impossible to learn WHY you are on the list. They simply won’t tell. They don’t have to, and so they won’t.
    I was told by a pal who is a political science professor that my name is similar to that of another political science professor who is an anarchist and advocates the overthrow of the US Government.
    Not me. I just advocate the impeachment and trial of the two traitors, Bush and Cheney.

  5. Electric Bill

    Just another Bush/Cheney tool to use to intimidate anybody who speaks out against their policies. Their lists are pathetic as is their performance. Terrorists, real terrorists, are much smarter than Bush’s politically chosen DHS appointees.