(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.