As the holiday travel season rolls around again, the government’s terrorism watch list and no-fly list get ever more bizarre. Of course, for starters, the list has always been unconstitutional, because the government does not have probable cause to believe the vast majority of those on the list have committed a crime (otherwise they could arrest them outright instead of just banning them from flying on airplanes).
The FBI’s terrorism watch list, from which the smaller no fly-list is derived, has 1,000,000 people listed, but according to officials, only a mere 400,000 of them are real peoplethe rest are aliases. Whew, I was getting worried there for an instant. Wait a minute, 400,000 is still a whopping number. An amazing 1,600 people are added to the terrorism list per day, merely on the much lower standard that they present “reasonable suspicion” of being terrorists. The list has been widely criticized for the tenuous and unclear links to terrorism of names included and the numerous cases of mistaken identities. Even the Justice Department’s inspector general noted that 24,000 people were included on the basis of irrelevant or outdated information.
Furthermore, if all of these 400,000 people wanted to commit terrorism in the United States, we are all in trouble. The good news is that they don’t. Many of these people come from foreign groups that are listed by the United States as terrorist organizations. But most of these groups don’t focus their attacks on the United States. As usual, the U.S. government is taking on the battles of other nations and labeling their headaches as terror groups requiring U.S. action. Even the small number of groups focusing their attacks on the United States could be reduced if the United States did not wade unnecessarily into foreign brush-fire conflicts.
Of the 400,000 people on the terrorism watch list, only about 9 percent, or 36,000, individuals are on the no-fly list. So I guess the other 364,000 “terrorists” (91 percent of the total) can come and go on aircraft as they please.
Even more surreal and inconsistent: even though people on the terrorism list can be prohibited from boarding an aircraft or denied a visa, they cannot be barred from buying a gun.
After 9/11, the government had to be seen as doing something about terrorismanything, even if it violated civil liberties or was harebrained. After the horrible tragedy, remember the elimination of efficient electronic tickets and the stationing of teenage National Guard recruits at crowded airports with assault rifles. Wouldn’t a pistol have been sufficient? Fortunately, these bad initiatives were discontinued.
Unfortunately, the terrorism watch list and no-fly list live on, even though many of the people on them likely are not anti-U.S. attackers or may not even be terrorists. Even worse, males from 25 Islamic countries entering the United States at airports have to undergo “special registration.” Instead of showing their passport to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official, as do people entering the United States from all other countries, they always get the dreaded “secondary inspection,” which can hold them up for hours. Unbelievably, to exit the country, people from these countries must travel through designated airports, or they might not be allowed back into the United States. The 9/11 Commission found that the special registration program did not stop or deter terrorists from entering the U.S. Naturally, since the terrorists are recruiting women and Europeans to do their dirty work.
When the government wastes its time on such violations of civil liberties, true security suffers.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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