Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) marked a grim milestone Monday with what it said was the one millionth name added to the terrorist watch list, though a closer analysis showed the number is actually half that.

The ACLU railed against the government during a media event at the National Press Club, citing a September 2007 report from the Justice Department’s inspector general that indicated the watch list included more than 700,000 “records” and projected it would grow another 20,000 per month.

Using those numbers, the ACLU figured the list would reach one million by mid-July.

“Putting a million names on a watch list is a guarantee that the list will do more harm than good by interfering with the travel of innocent people and wasting huge amounts of our limited security resources on bureaucratic wheel-spinning,” Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program, said in a written statement.

Officials with the departments of Homeland Security and Justice responded by saying the ACLU incorrectly equated the one million “records,” or pieces of information about each suspect, with the number of individuals on the list, which they say is 400,000.

The ACLU apparently misunderstood the inspector general’s report to issue its claim; however, the document itself makes clear the distinction between “records” and “suspected terrorists.”

“The reported figure represents the number of records in the system,” the report said. “This does not equate to the number of known or suspected terrorists in the system, as a single person may have multiple records to account for the use of aliases, alternate identities and multiple identifying documents.”

“As such, the number of records generally will be larger than the number of suspected or known terrorists on the watch list,” the IG report said.

Asked to comment on the discrepancy, Mr. Steinhardt called the government’s account of 400,000 suspects an unverifiable number that does not change the ACLU’s point about the list growing out of control, and a need for better supervision and oversight.

“In any case, does anyone believe that even if the number is 400,000, that there are that many terrorists seeking to attack us?” Mr. Steinhardt said. “Is that number any less insane than 1 million?”

The Washington Times reported April 11 that the Terrorism Screening Center (TSC) had nearly 500,000 names on the list and was working to remove names that did not belong to actual suspects.

TSC spokesman Chad Kolton said that about 95 percent of watch-listed suspects are not U.S. citizens or legal residents of the U.S. and the vast majority aren’t even in the U.S.

“We strive to have the watch list contain all appropriately suspected terrorists who represent a threat to the U.S., but only appropriately suspected terrorists,” Mr. Kolton said.

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