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"Terrorist" Watch List Hits One Million Names

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The "terrorist" watch list now has more than one million names. Do you feel safer now?

Since February we've been tracking the size of our government's list of ostensible terrorist suspects, which according to the government's own report (pdf) has been rising at a rate of 20,000 per month.

Today I appeared in a press conference at the National Press Club here in Washington to mark this latest threshold in the history of our government's so-called "War on Terror." With me were Caroline Fredrickson, head of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, and two watch list victims: Jim Robinson, a former assistant attorney general for the Civil Division at the Justice Department, who flies frequently and is often delayed for hours despite possessing a governmental security clearance; and Akif Rahman, an American citizen who has been repeatedly detained, shackled, separated from his family, and interrogated at the U.S.-Canada border when traveling for his business.

The first thing we have to do is reduce the size of this list. There cannot possibly be one million terrorists poised to attack us. If there were our cities would be ablaze. The president - if not this president, then the next one -- needs to order the Terrorist Screening Center (the entity that maintains the list) to take everyone off this list except those for whom there is credible evidence of terrorist activities or ties. And they should be ordered to do it quickly -- within three months.

There's just no excuse for a terrorist watch list with one million names on it. And the million names dramatically understates the number of Americans actually affected by this hopelessly bloated folly. With common names like Robert Johnson on the list, exponentially more Americans are caught up in a Kafkaesque web of suspicion.

Think about it -- when the government announced it was setting up this list, did anyone picture such a thing? Might as well just put the whole population on the list and save on administrative expenses.

The second primary thing that needs to be done is for checks and balances to be imposed on this watch list system. If the government is going to use watch lists, there needs to be in place the same kinds of due process protections that American citizens expect any other time the government interferes with the rights and privileges that other members of society enjoy (such as the right to travel by air).

Congress needs to put into law -- you can't trust bureaucracies to stick with "guidelines" or other weaker protections -- basic protections such as:

  • a right to access and challenge data upon which listing is based;
  • tight criteria for adding names to the lists;

  • rigorous procedures for updating and cleansing names from the lists;

  • and most of all, the right to a meaningful, participatory process by which we can challenge our inclusion on a watch list in an adversarial proceeding before a neutral arbiter.

Today we also announced the creation of an online form where victims of the watch list can report their experiences to us. We will collect those stories and use them in a variety of ways to advance our advocacy. We only share or use each story according to the permission that the submitter gives us, and stories can be submitted anonymously.

In some ways, this million-person watch list is the perfect symbol for an administration whose strategy in fighting terrorism has always revolved around making everyone a suspect -- from data mining to ID cards to see-through body scanners. It is an approach based around trying to pick a one-in-a-billion terrorist out of the population, rather than doing the only thing that has ever really worked to stop attacks: following up competently on known terrorists and known leads and working outward from there to go directly to the terrorists.

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