Questions raised about effectiveness of terror watch-list

Published 25 October 2007

There are now about 755,000 names on the U.S. terror watch list; since 2004, about 200,000 names have been added to the list each year; legislators, security experts say it has become unwieldy

The U.S. terrorist watch list has swelled to more than 755,000 names, according to a new government report, raising serious questions about the list’s effectiveness. The size of the list, typically used to check people entering the country through land border crossings, airports, and sea ports, has been growing by 200,000 names a year since 2004. Lawmakers, security experts, and civil rights advocates say it will become useless if it includes too many people. “It undermines the authority of the list,” says Lisa Graves of the Center for National Security Studies. “There’s just no rational, reasonable estimate that there’s anywhere close to that many suspected terrorists.” The USA Today’s Mimi Hall writes that the precise number of people on the list, launched after 9/11, is unclear, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Some people may be on the list more than once because they are listed under multiple spellings. Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, plans a hearing on the report today. He said that “serious hurdles remain if (the list) is to be as effective as we need it to be. Some of the concerns stem from its rapid growth, which could call into question the quality of the list itself.”

About 53,000 people on the list were questioned since 2004, according to the GAO, which says that DHS does not keep records on how many were denied entry or allowed into the country after questioning. Most were apparently released and allowed to enter, the GAO says. Leonard Boyle, director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the list, says in testimony to be given today that 269 foreigners were denied entry in fiscal 2006. Boyle also sugested that the list be used by for screening at businesses where workers could “carry out attacks on our critical infrastructure that could harm large numbers of persons or cause immense economic damage.”

Among the highlights of the GAO report:

—The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) could not specify how many people on its no-fly list, which is a small subset of the watch list, might have slipped through screening and been allowed on domestic flights

TSA data show “a number of individuals” on the no-fly list passed undetected through screening and boarded international flights bound for the United States. Several planes have been diverted once officials realized that people named on the watch lists were on board

DHS has not done enough to use the list more broadly in the private sector, where workers applying for jobs in sensitive places such as chemical factories could do harm