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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Terror Watch List may actually be working.

And, no, of course that wasn't the headline in the Washington Post.

Terror Suspect List Yields Few Arrests

There, doesn't the world look more normal now?

Ellen Nakashima writes:

"The government's terrorist screening database flagged Americans and foreigners as suspected terrorists almost 20,000 times last year. But only a small fraction of those questioned were arrested or denied entry into the United States, raising concerns among critics about privacy and the list's effectiveness."

According to Ms. Nakashima "(s)lightly more than half of the 20,000 encounters last year were logged by Customs and Border Protection officers, who turned back or handed over to authorities 550 people, most of them foreigners(.)"

So if "slightly over half" is about 10,000 hits, the Customs and Borders guys arrested or refused entry to about 5% of the people they "encountered" from the list. We don't know what percentage of those 10 thousand people were American citizens or legal residents. For citizens and residents, you have to let them into the country, and you can't arrest them without a warrant. Also, it seems obvious to me that we want a "watch" list to be made up of suspicious people, not simply people for whom there is a warrant out.

While the article repeats "terrorist" over and over, once you get to the eleventh paragraph you find that included in the list are violent gang members from the FBI's files. Again, if these gang members are Americans, you can't arrest them - or turn them away - simply because you know they are violent gang members. But you may want to note their comings and goings.

The article goes on to quote some ACLU guy (you saw that coming) that complained about too many "false positives." But we don't have enough data from the article to know how many of the hits were "false". For instance, if I had a number of associates that were known to be tied to terrorism or gang activity, I'll bet I would find myself on the list even if I myself am not a terrorist or criminal. My relationship with bad guys might be enough of a reason to watch me during these interesting times.

A list like this is tricky business and those of us concerned about liberty have to keep the government honest over its use, but from the information I get out of this article, I don't see any reason to panic. In fact the numbers sound reasonable to me so far.

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