After having begun a series of investigative stories criticizing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in May 2008, CNN reporter Drew Griffin reports being placed with more than a million other names on TSA’s swollen terrorism watch list. Although TSA insists Griffin’s name is not on the list and pooh-poohs any possibility of retaliation for Griffin’s negative reporting, the reporter has been hassled by various airlines on 11 flights since May. The airlines insist that Griffin’s name is on the list. Congress has asked TSA to look into the tribulations of this prominent passenger.
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, probably responding to the controversy over Griffin, Leonard Boyle, the director of the Terrorist Screening Center, defended the watch list, claiming that because terrorists have multiple aliases, the names on the list boiled down to only about 400,000 actual people. If there are 400,000 terrorists lying in wait to attack the United States, we are all in trouble.
But wait a minute. There has been no major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11–almost seven years ago. Where are all these nefarious evildoers?
Boyle says 95 percent of these people are not American citizens or legal residents and the vast majority aren’t even in the United States. He rather sheepishly defends the size of the list by writing, “Its size corresponds to the threat. It’s a big world.”
That brings up a very important issue. The U.S. government regularly tries to police the world and combat threats to other nations–in the process, usually generating more enemies. Examining the forty-four organizations on the State Department’s highly politicized list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), one finds that only a very few currently focus their efforts on U.S. targets. And the U.S. government has even flirted with one anti-Iranian group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which was put on the FTO list long ago.
Similarly, the State Department’s list of five state sponsors of terrorism has included Cuba and North Korea–neither of which has actively participated in terrorist attacks in decades. These two countries continued to be on the list for other reasons–namely U.S. government aversion to them. On its website, the State Department even admits that, “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” The website also contains an implicit admission that keeping selected countries on the state sponsors list can reap ulterior political benefits for the United States. The website notes that under the umbrella of the Six-Party Talks, the United States intends to remove North Korea from the list as that nation takes actions toward getting rid of its nuclear weapons program. Even the remaining three nations on the list that do sponsor terrorism–Syria, Iran, and Sudan–don’t support groups that focus their attacks on the U.S.
Thus, the humongous terrorist watch list for airline travel and the excessively large FTO and state sponsors lists are a few more examples of the United States taking on other nations’ security burdens. Trying to be the “big man on (the world) campus,” however, comes at a horrendous cost to American freedom at home.
The terrorist watch list is downright unconstitutional. Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, no warrants shall be issued unless there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. If the government has such probable cause that a passenger is conspiring to commit a terrorist act on an airplane, it should not hassle that person at the airport when trying to fly or ban him or her from flying; it should arrest them. But of course the government does not have the evidence to do that for the vast majority of the 400,000 people on the watch list.
And it’s apparently not easy to get yourself off the list once you are on it. Although Boyle claims that the TSA constantly scrubs the list for possible mistaken identities of people who have frequent “encounters” with the list, even if they don’t file a complaint, Griffin uncovered an innocent passenger with a common name–James Robinson–who has complained endlessly and has received no resolution of his case. Senator Edward Kennedy–also with a common name–experienced endless hassles and red tape trying to get his name off the list. If such a well-known figure has such problems, the average misidentified traveler is in big trouble.
And as the economists would say, what about opportunity cost to real security? The U.S. government should spend the time it devotes to scrutinizing 400,000 people on the watch list, and the vast majority of the 44 FTOs and all of the 5 countries who don’t sponsor anti-U.S. terrorism, on the again rising principal threat from Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their tens of hard core al Qaeda followers operating out of Pakistan. The American public would be much safer. As the famous Prussian military ruler Fredrick the Great (and closet economist) said, “To defend everything is to defend nothing.” Moreover, under current government policy, we have neither liberty nor security.