ACLU Official Says It Is Not Realistic to Screen Air Passengers Against the Full Terrorist Watchlist
January 11, 2010 - 6:59 PMACLU terrorism expert Mike German said that using the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) of 400,000-plus names to screen airline passengers was not realistic, and added that it was "fundamentally ridiculous" to think the list was not flawed.
German, speaking Monday at a Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the Arab American Institute to examine President Obama’s new airline screening policies, said the terrorist watch-listing system was “broken.”
“One of the most disappointing things about the whole review of this situation was this idea that the terrorist watch-listing system is not, itself, broken, which is fundamentally ridiculous,” said German.
“There are, as you say, 400,000 names on these, Terrorist Screening Center names, actually the number the [Justice Department] IG [Inspector General] put in his last report was 1.1 million identities,” German said. “I know that there is a distinction between names and identities and actual people, but we’re still talking about 1.1 million identities on this Terrorist Screening Center list and the number on the no-fly list is a small subset of that.”
According to Timothy J. Healy, director of the Justice Department’s Terrorist Screening Center, “the terrorist watch list is made up of approximately 400,000 people, ranging from suicide bombers to financiers. A small portion of the list is exported to TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] to create the No Fly list. In order to be placed on a No Fly list, a known or suspected terrorist must present a threat to civil aviation or national security.”
“Consequently, the No Fly list is a very small subset of the terrorist watch list,” Healy told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Dec. 9. “It contains approximately 3,400 people. Of those, approximately 170 are U.S. citizens,”
Thus, the 3,400 people on the No Fly list represent less than 1 percent, or 0.85 percent, of the 400,000 people on the full “Terrorist Watchlist.”
Healy testified in the committee a little more than two weeks before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to detonate explosives he had smuggled aboard in his underwear.
In his testimony, Healy had stressed the smallness of the “No Fly” list, a theme that had also been sounded a year before by then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
German said on Monday that the terrorist watchlist system has been broken “for years,” pointing out that names were added to the list incorrectly while others were kept on the list after investigators had cleared them of any involvement with terrorists.
“You don’t have to look to the ACLU to say that this system is broken, and it’s not that it just broke this time,” he said. “The IG at the Department of Justice has been looking at this for years and he has one report after another that says that this is fundamentally flawed.”
“There were people who were put on the list appropriately because they were under investigation, but when the investigation cleared them, they weren’t taken off the list,” said German. “There were people who were known terrorists, there were people who he [the IG] identified as known terrorists who were not on the list.”
German described the watchlist system as one of “tremendous false positives,” a fact that makes using the entire list as a tool to keep terrorists off of airplanes problematic.
“The whole listing process is broken and needs a fundamental overhaul,” said German. “We’re creating a system of tremendous false positives. We’ve created a system that creates hundreds, and probably hundreds of thousands, of false positives every day.”
The former counter-terrorism instructor offered that for the list to be effective officials need to “re-do” it to include only people the FBI and other national security agencies are not currently investigating.
“Putting 1.1 million people on a no-fly list when the evidence for putting them on there is in question, I think, isn’t the answer – it’s completely re-doing that list so that it only focuses on known terrorists,” he said. “There shouldn’t be anybody on that list who the FBI is not currently, and the other agencies, currently hunting down.”
German said that this method would not deny anyone their “right to fly” who is not under suspicion of being a terrorist.
“There shouldn’t be somebody sitting on the list who we’re saying is a terrorist – and perhaps denying their right to fly – and nobody’s actually looking for them,” he said.
After the briefing, German noted that the list has included well-known figures such as singer Cat Stevens and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), using those famous errors to make the point that trying to keep all 400,000 names on the TSDB list from entering the country would be impossible.
“If you look today at how many completely innocent people that’s impacted, people who have a name that looks like [a terror suspect’s], when you’re talking about 1.1 million names, I mean, how many names are there?” said German.
“At some point, when being one letter off or two letters off or having the first name, middle name, last name transposed in some order, you’re having an exponentially large impact on people who are totally innocent,” he said. “For every investigator who’s asked to go out and check on one of those false positives -- we’re building up this system of false positives and that is actually undermining the effectiveness of our state and local law enforcement and federal law enforcement.”