Our Ballooning Terrorist Watch-List

In the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States government compiled a list of 20 known terrorists: They were the 19 hijackers who died in the attacks and the one -- now known to be Zacarias Moussaoui -- who got away. Rapidly, however, that list grew.

President Bush called upon every agency of government to provide his administration with the names of every so-called person of concern contained in their millions of files. Those records included not just potential terrorists, but also deadbeat dads, people wanted by the federal Marshal, and Drug Enforcement Administration suspects, among others. But they all found themselves on what has come to be called the "terrorist watch list." By June 2004, that list had swelled to 158,000 names. In May of this year, it clocked in at 755,000. Today, only five months later, it's at 860,000 and counting, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The argument for maintaining such an unwieldy and quickly growing list is perhaps best voiced by cliché: better safe than sorry. But that philosophy has spawned a list that a recent GAO study found much too large to be effective, and much too inaccurate to protect the civil liberties of innocent people.

The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center manages the list, but to date, the administration has failed to establish a clear, consist methodology for government agencies to use when determining who goes on the list and who doesn't. The criteria vary widely, where they're known at all. The Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, flatly refuses to disclose its criteria for submitting a name to the list. The FBI, on the other hand, generally nominates any and all subjects of ongoing counterterrorism investigations.

In Oct. 24 testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs -- chaired by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Vt., who is typically deferential to the Bush administration on national security -- GAO's Eileen Larence noted the list is actually growing even faster than it seems. The Terrorist Screening Center told GAO it has deleted around 100,000 records from the list, but investigators are adding records so furiously that they're far outpacing the rate at which they are establishing suspects' innocence. It's two steps backward for each in the right direction.

Moreover, the list is already multiple times larger than even the most generous estimate of the number of terrorists out there.

It remains unknown how many names on the list are part of government-designated terrorist groups. That is classified. The list is, however, known to include members of all the familiars -- including Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and affiliates of the IRA and the Tamil Tigers.

The exact size of some of these groups is hard to pin down, but plenty of information about them is publicly available. Al-Qaeda is believed to have on the order of 10,000 members. Hamas has several hundred armed militants, out of a total affiliation of around 6,000 people. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hezbollah "consists of several thousand militants and activists" and the Revolutionary Guard Corps -- recently declared by the administration to be a terrorist organization, and the largest of the groups -- has about 125,000 members. The IRA, by contrast, has only about 1,000 active members, according to the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, and the Tamil Tigers rivals Al-Qaeda with about 8,000.

Not all of the members of these organizations are directly involved in violent operations, and many lack the operational capacity to commit acts of terrorism. But even using the most liberal estimates, these groups total about 200,000 people. Assuming every one of those members is on the list -- a laughable assumption -- it would reflect an accuracy of only 23 percent.

This is all crude mathematics, but it highlights the list's fatal flaw -- there's no stopping it from getting much larger, much less accurate, and much more likely to produce false positives. ACLU legislative council Tim Sparapani put it this way: "We should get away from the idea that having a long list of names of people makes us safer … from the idea that showing ID everywhere makes us safer."

"We're setting up, post-9-11, a checkpoint society, both externally and internally," he says, "but people don't think about the internal ones enough."

Sparapani warns against a move towards a national ID system and against a still-developing series of document-requirement initiatives -- set in motion by the 2005 Real ID Act -- that would require everyone to always carry identification and to display it as a matter of routine when entering federal buildings, boarding Amtrak trains, riding along interstate bus routes, and other times.

In his view, a more effective scheme for fighting terrorism would involve a return to Fourth Amendment, probable-cause standards: well-equipped agencies investigating terrorist suspects thoroughly -- and checking non-threats off the list. "We recommend a very tightly controlled watch list with a limited number of names -- people with the means, the motive, and the opportunity to do harm to the country and to citizens … not just people who say that they hate America."

The alternative seems to be making a list of suspects that grows at a clip of more than 20,000 entries a month, and that requires policing standards well known and widely loathed by most democracies of the 21st century.