Airline Watch Lists Should Be Expanded

Monday, 29 Nov 2010 11:29 AM

By Ronald Kessler

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Media commentators have been proposing two alternatives to body scanning and searches of airline passengers: the Israeli approach, which relies on questioning passengers, and profiling.

Kessler, TSA, watch list, airline, securityNeither alternative is feasible.

Israeli airports handle 11 million airline passengers a year, while U.S. airports handle 700 million. Fielding skilled interrogators to handle that many passengers would be virtually impossible and would not necessarily uncover everyone secreting a bomb.

Profiling by religion or ethnicity would be even more foolhardy. There is no database listing the religion or ancestry of individuals. Nor would such profiling stop plots. Colleen Renee LaRose, also known as Jihad Jane, is blond and blue-eyed. Jose Padilla, who planned to set off a dirty bomb in the United States, is Hispanic.

But a list of possible terrorists already exists and is not being used by the federal government to pinpoint passengers who should receive extra screening or should be prohibited from flying. That list of 550,000 individuals is called Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). Developed by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the list includes individuals known to be militants, extremists, or jihadists.

Yet starting with a slightly smaller list developed by the FBI from the TIDE list, the Transportation Security Administration winnows the names down to only about 4,000 people who are placed on its no-fly list and about 14,000 “selectees” who are on its list of people who require additional scrutiny. The number on the selectee list is expected to increase to 40,000 or 50,000 once a program to require more information from passengers is in place.

Under current standards, to be placed on those watch lists, the NCTC must have specific derogatory information about the individual. As a result, while Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, was on the TIDE list, his name was not included on either watch list meant to screen passengers who could be threats. Why not?

In placing individuals on these lists, intelligence officials receive constant pressure from the ACLU and other civil liberties advocates who complain that there is something inherently insidious about the number of names on the lists. Timothy Sparapani, the ACLU’s legislative counsel for privacy rights, has called the numbers “shocking.”

I am for using every method available to detect terrorists and bombs. Since he was serving in the military, no intelligence-based screening would have zeroed in on U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan if he had brought a bomb on board an airplane. That is why we need body scanners and pat downs to uncover the kind of bombs smuggled by Abdulmutallab in his underwear.

As noted in the Newsmax story FBI and CIA Fight a Silent Battle, if the loved ones of Republican lawmakers who have been complaining about body scanners and searches were to lose their lives in an attack on an airplane, they would be the first ones demanding to know why the bomb was not detected.

But if TSA began focusing on everyone on the larger list, it could pinpoint more accurately those who require extra scrutiny or should be prohibited from flying. As Russell Travers, who heads the NCTC program that places individuals on the TIDE list, testified last March before the House Judiciary Committee, one lesson from the fact that Abdulmutallab was not singled out for scrutiny is that the “U.S. government needs to look at overall standards — those required to get on watch lists in general and the no fly list and selectee list in particular.”

If the individual who selects individuals to be placed on the lists thinks they should be expanded, why have Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and TSA not done so? Whose rights are being violated more — those who receive extra scrutiny because they are placed on watch lists or those who may be killed because the government is afraid to stand up to the ACLU and expand the lists?

What is shocking is not how many are on the lists. It is how few.


Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.

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