The trouble with U.S. terrorist watch lists

By Bernd Debusmann
May 8, 2010

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) – What do the late Senator Edward Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, American Airlines pilot Kiernan O’Dwyer, Democratic congressman John Lewis and Sam Adams, aged 5, have in common? They have all been on one of America’s terrorist watch lists and found it easier to get on the list than off it.

That’s a trend almost certain to continue as the database grows relentlessly, resulting in a huge haystack of suspects in which to find the terrorist needle. There are no up-to-date figures on the size of that haystack but according to a report a year ago by the Justice Department’s inspector general, the “consolidated watch list” contained more than 1.1 million “known or suspected terrorist identities” by the end of 2008.

That corresponded to around 400,000 people, plus various aliases and ways of spelling names. If the growth rate of previous years is anything to go by, the database may well reach two million entries sometime before the end of this year. The government’s approach to the watch lists has fluctuated from rapidly expanding it after September 11 2001, to trying to trim it, as happened in the final year of the Bush administration.

The course changed after the abortive Christmas Day plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner by a Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was on a catch-all list called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) but not on the smaller “no fly” list. President Barack Obama called for a thorough review of the watch list system.
At a congressional hearing in January, the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, said the Bush policy change had responded to complaints about bloated lists and extra scrutiny of innocent travelers. An oft-heard question, Blair said, was “Why are you searching grandmothers? … I should not have given in to that pressure, but it was a factor.”

That, for the time being, was the end of tighter regulations on putting suspects on watch lists. But it was not the end to lapses in security procedures –  Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American charged with trying to explode a car  bomb in New York’s Times Square, was allowed to board a Dubai-bound airliner despite having been placed on the no-fly list the day of his flight.

An alert Border Protection officer spotted his name on the list as the aircraft was taxiing out. It was ordered to stop and Shahzad was taken off.

“One really has to wonder where was the failing here,” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said in a congressional hearing. “What happened with this watch list. It makes you wonder whether there was a lapse in communication … between law enforcement agencies working at the airport.”

WATCH LISTS TO GROW
What will be happening with the watch lists seems clear: they will grow because of the nature of Washington bureaucracies whose mode of operation include the principle of CYA (Cover Your Ass). In other words, there is little downside for officials who err on the side of adding too many names but there is a lot for letting an Abdulmutallab slip through.

Who is being placed on the list under current regulations? “In general, individuals who are ‘reasonably suspected’ of having possible links to terrorism – in addition to individuals with known links – are to be nominated for inclusion in the consolidated watch list by the FBI and other members of the intelligence community,” according to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO.

“Reasonable suspicion” is a flexible term and a red flag for civil liberties advocates. An Arizona state law that requires police officers to question a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is in the country illegally prompted a chorus of condemnation.

In an odd twist in American politics, “reasonable suspicion” is also raising the hackles of the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), a group enraged by pending legislation that would give the U.S. Department of Justice authority to block the sale of firearms to people on the terrorist watch list. The issue came up in a congressional hearing just two days after the abortive Times Square bomb attack.

Police found a rifle in the car Shahzad left behind at the airport. He had bought it three months earlier, when he was beginning to assemble material for his abortive bomb plot.     Shahzad was not on a terrorist watch list at the time but if he had been, he still could have bought the gun. Why?

“Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law,” says the GAO, the research arm of Congress. Neither does inclusion in a terrorist watch list. Over the past six years, according to a GAO report read at the hearing, sales of guns and explosives to people on terrorist watch lists totaled 1,119. These included several on the “no fly” list “because the background checks revealed no prohibiting information under current law.”

Under current law, the background checks licensed gun dealers must perform are designed to stop sales to nine categories of people, including “felons, fugitives, unlawful drug users and aliens illegally in the United States.”
The categories do not include “suspicion” and the NRA argues that suspicion is not enough for Congress to curb or take away the constitutional right, enshrined in the second amendment, to own and bear arms. Given the lobby’s enormous influence on Congress, the argument is probably strong enough to block, or at least delay, legislation that would close what is known as the “terror gap.”

(Editing by Kieran Murray)

17 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I’m not sure if it’s good policy to let the public even know about these “watch lists” or “no fly lists” -
it gives the people who really do pose a threat the heads up to recruit people to get around it…

Posted by avgprsn | Report as abusive

Just flew back to the States from Bangkok, had no trouble in Thailand or Japan, spent 2 hours trying to get through American customs, my bags were x-rayed and searched multiple times. I have no idea what they expected I could have smuggled into my luggage in the 20 feet or so I would travel between searches, but the custom agents were beyond overzealous.
Despite the constant x-raying and rummaging through my stuff that would turn up nothing, customs agents kept making insinuations that I must have done something illegal, after all, I’d just been in Thailand. They even threatened to search my computer.
It’s out of control and there is no freedom left in America.

Posted by Kellen | Report as abusive

Welcome to the United States of America. Home of the modern day police state. When the Soviet Union failed, US needed to replace this villain with another. Hence the rise of the terrorist. Soon, it will be nearly impossible for anyone to fly on an airplane. Well done. We’ve entirely ruined the safest mode of travel, while creating a new police force with absolute powers. And there can be no humor or sarcasm found in all this, as that will land you in jail, and on the no fly list until you die.
Ask my own grandson, age 2, who was searched 5 times, just trying to get on a plane from Las Vegas to Reno….
Now convince me, that this action was warranted… Just try.

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

nice to here that at least one poster and their property was thoroughly inspected, if the post can be believed. i suspect that the phoney u.s. citizen, english speaking, phoney islamic cleric awlaki had something to do with shazzad becoming so sympathetic to taliban goals. perhaps he was just a wanna-be terrorist and lied to his interrogators, who’s to know? what’s interesting to me is that the article cites no references and as such is merely an opinion piece. so the question becomes: how am i to believe that sen. kennedy was on a “one of america’s terrorist watch lists”? this sounds too absurd to be believable. so i say: no proof = no fact. guess again.

Posted by gsteinum | Report as abusive

edit: hear, not here in 1st sentence.

Posted by gsteinum | Report as abusive

I guess the airline lobbyist aren’t very powerful. Watch airline companies go bankrupt one after the other soon. It’s a nightmare traveling these days.
American Customs agents have always been bigoted A-wipes but now they DO have absolute A-powers. Thank God Obama is recognized cause with that name and being black, he’d be at customs for many hours when traveling…

Posted by Pavlov | Report as abusive

Instead of just leaving the job to stupid authoritarians, everyone should keep lists. For example, I’m making a list of all the things that have gotten better in America since 1980. Thus far, the file size is zero kb.

Guess I’ll keep working on it.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

gsteinum: Absurd is the right word. Click on Senator Susan Collins’ statement to the Committee on Homeland Security, May 5:

http://hsgac.senate.gov/public/index.cfm  ?FuseAction=Hearings.Hearing&Hearing_ID =a6061b56-3636-4fac-8446-b3c0dd65d02d

Read to the bottom of page 2.

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

gsteinum: As to “no proof=no fact. guess again” Scroll to page 26 in the transcript of a Senate hearing to see what the late Senator reported on the matter.

http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/ getdoc.cgi?dbname=108_senate_hearings&do cid=f:96459.pdf

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

To think this all started with a few guys with box cutter knives who flew perfectly into the world trade centers after being very poorly trained in Florida flight training schools..

Wake up people. The name of the game is fear.. keep the people afraid and stupid and you have control over them. “I have an idea.. let’s always have the threat level at orange even if there’s nothing going on..”

Oh sure, there’s real terrorists out there.. but the majority of them are recruited because they are pissed that we killed hundreds of thousands of their own (Iraq, Afghanistan wars)

Now you too can be threatened as a terrorist because of the patriot act and many other such bills.. We are letting them sacrifice our freedoms for security.. Welcome to The United States of Fear mongering..

Posted by willgrey | Report as abusive

Haha! This reminds me alot of the DDR, just that with todays technology they dont have to sneak in your house and install cables and microphones…

Do you guys have an enemy list aswell, like for people who would be more likley to fight against you than for you? If so, put me on it because if push comes to shove I will be there. One day people like me will do what people like your grandparents did to my country, rightly.

And before I forget, stop getting other countries to fight for you. Perhaps then I can do my military service without feeling bad about it.

Greetings from Germany!

Posted by CatchingBombs | Report as abusive

My brother Wilfredo Chan reside 231 Sapphire Lane Franklin Park, NJ came in with a fake US passport and an assume name Wilfredo Dizon years ago. No line just an express exit. Now, it is so different

Posted by ArmandoChan | Report as abusive

gsteinum wrote,
“how am i to believe that sen. kennedy was on a “one of america’s terrorist watch lists”? this sounds too absurd to be believable. so i say: no proof = no fact. guess again.”

gsteinun,
I found this link in the Washington Times after about one minutes worth of search:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/art icles/A17073-2004Aug19.html

So Kennedy was on a no fly list.

Posted by old_school | Report as abusive

I was a 50 year old white woman traveling from Dulles overseas. I had a metal cane which they made me put on the conveyor, but failed to give me the wooden replacement. They told me to go through the metal detector. I touched the edge for stability and got yelled at and told not to touch the frame. I then asked for my cane back and they refused and made me go through the humiliation of a search. That’s after they wouldn’t give me a chair to comply with taking off my shoes. I had to sit on their bin table. What did they think I was going to do? Use my cane to hijack the plane? I was obviously a handicapped person, not a terrorist. Or do I fit the usual profile? Oh, yeah, no profiling allowed. The two year old listed above and I are in the same terrorist cell!

Posted by linrn | Report as abusive

The watch list is automated, which is how Kennedy (and myself) got onto the list. I believe I was added automatically because, for one of my many trips, it was cheaper to purchase 2 one-way tickets than a round trip. My travel agent for work actually booked the tickets for me. The thing is, it wasn’t that flight that I was flagged on. It was my next round trip flight months later. I got onto the one-way flights no problem. I think we can be pretty certain that the watch lists don’t work at all.

The amazing thing to me is that so many Americans are fine with the intrusive security at the airports, indefinite incarceration, torture, suspension of the 4th and 14th amendments, yet get all upset at curtailing gun rights for terror suspects.

Posted by Chas2205 | Report as abusive

CatchingBombs said this, above:

“Do you guys have an enemy list aswell, like for people who would be more likley to fight against you than for you? If so, put me on it because if push comes to shove I will be there. One day people like me will do what people like your grandparents did to my country, rightly.

And before I forget, stop getting other countries to fight for you. Perhaps then I can do my military service without feeling bad about it.”

Hey dude, apparently you are referring to World War II, which was initiated by two countries: 1. Nazi Germany (assisted by Fascist Italy), and 2. Japan, about two years after the the murdering leader of Germany, Hitler, had initiated the war in Europe.

Either you have never studied real history, or choose to belie and ignore it, as some do.

It does not really need to be said, as it has been documented in countless books and documents and photographs, that the only reason Germany was bombed by the Allies is that your apparent beloved elected leader of Germany in the 1930′s had as his goal the conquering of the world, to be dictator of the world, and the extermination of a large group of people because of their particular religion. Because you choose to ignore this does not mean it did not happen.
So stow your obnoxious, immature and self-serving banter, and do something about your ignorance.
If American troops had not been battling Islamists who will murder anyone, anyone at all, to try to hurt America, because they believe their “God” wants them to murder anyone that is not them, then you and your country would be in as much danger ultimately of being murdered by those cutthroats as we Americans are.
The world does owe a debt to those who have given their lives, and place their lives in jeopardy, to fight evil, and the number one country doing so is still the U.S.A.

By the way, my father, not my grandfather, participated very much in the bombing of Germany to stop Hitler and his murdering ways. My father and millions like him did not go to war in Europe and the Pacific just because they wanted to, but because the world did and always will have those who choose to be evil and to try to conquer, dominate, plunder and harm others, as the elected leader of Germany did.

Unfortunately, like a weed coming up in a well-tended garden, you sprouted from seed that was left after the war, and the ideas and notions of superiority of Hitler and his gang of murderers lives on in hearts such as yours. So go read a real history book, instead of your NAZI lies. Learn some truth, and hopefully, change your attitude.

And the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security will be happy to get your profile from Reuters to add to their lists of real potential terrorists.

Posted by ayesee | Report as abusive

Ayesee, Perhaps you should do a little further research on 1930s history yourself. Hitler blamed terrorists for burning down the Reichstag. He used the the so called terrorist threat as a pretext to begin relocating undesirables(Jews, Gypsies and dissidents)which eventually lead to extermination. He also moved his forces into the Middle East and Russia in his quest for natural resources; oil, coal and mineral ores.

The United States presently occupies nations sitting on the worlds vast oil and natural gas reserves. We are heavily dependent upon imports for oil. Am I the only one who sees these similarities? Certainly documenting United States’ military atrocities beginning with it’s treatment of the Native Americans all the way to Abu Graib and the current battle field executions of detainees would be exhaustively redundant.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive