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'A Comedy of Errors': Why It's Time to Get Rid of the So-Called Terrorist Watch List

A new report finds people on the terrorist watch list can more easily buy guns than board planes. But the real problem lies deeper than that.

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By one estimate, since then, "approximately 50,000 military detainees" had been nominated to the watch list.

Crucially, the audit found, "the FBI was not reviewing each nomination and that the determination that these individuals as known or suspected terrorists was being made by the DoD using DoD criteria."

Who are these 50,000 detainees? Did they end up at Guantanamo? Bagram Air Base? Are they actually terrorists?

We cannot know for sure: The full list of names on the TSC watch list remains classified.

Over 1 Million and Counting

Anonymous military prisoners aside, several well-publicized reports in the past few years have found serious problems with the terrorist watch list when it comes to the names of ordinary -- and not-so ordinary -- people.

In 2006, for example, 60 Minutes obtained a copy of the government's No Fly List, which comprises names culled from the Terrorist Screening Center's master list.

Among the hardened terrorists it found on the government watch list? Nelson Mandela, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, countless civilians (with the misfortune to be named Gary Smith, John Williams or Robert Johnson), and numerous dead people.

But the "first surprise," according to a segment that aired in October 2006, "was the sheer size of it."

In paper form, it is more than 540 pages long. Before 9/11, the government's list of suspected terrorists banned from air travel totaled just 16 names; today there are 44,000. And that doesn't include people the government thinks should be pulled aside for additional security screening. There are another 75,000 people on that list.

With Joe Trento of the National Security News Service, 60 Minutes spent months going over the names on the No Fly List. While it is classified as sensitive, even members of Congress have been denied access to it. But that may have less to do with national security than avoiding embarrassment.

Asked what the quality is of the information that the TSA gets from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI, Trento says, "Well, you know about our intelligence before we went to war in Iraq. You know what that was like. Not too good."

... 60 Minutes certainly didn't expect to find the names of 14 of the 19 9/11 hijackers on the list, since they have been dead for five years. 60 Minutes also found a number of high-profile people who aren't likely to turn up at an airline ticket counter any time soon, like convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, now serving a life sentence in Colorado, and Saddam Hussein, who, at the time, was on trial for his life in Baghdad.

In 2004, the ACLU sued the Bush administration on behalf of several plaintiffs who had been wrongfully placed on the list, including a college student, an Air Force sergeant, an attorney, and a U.S. citizen from Pakistan who worked for the ACLU. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, however.

Meanwhile, the list has continued to grow. Last summer, the number of names hit 1 million, a figure so staggering the ACLU added a handy Watch List Counter to its Web site. Now, the number is over 1.1 million -- and counting.

Time to Scratch the List

Not surprisingly, the terrible reputation of the TSC's terrorist watch list has provided ammunition to gun lobbyists to criticize the veracity of this week's GAO study and the legislation it has inspired.

"The integrity of the terror watch list is poor, as it mistakenly contains the names of many men and women, including some high-profile Americans, who have not violated the law," Chris W. Cox, the National Rifle Association's head lobbyist, argued in a statement this week. According to Cox, giving the attorney general new authority to block gun sales to anyone on the list would thus mean inevitably denying innocent Americans their Second Amendment rights. In this case, regardless of where one comes down on the gun debate, the NRA has a point.