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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.