Congress is, gradually, dealing with the consequences of a federal terrorist watchlist that in four years has swelled to 860,000 records. Today, New York Democrat Yvette Clark proposed the Fair, Secure and Timely Redress Act of 2007 that would provide a "one-stop shop" for U.S. citizens erroneously put on the burgeoning watchlist.
"There is now a single, comprehensive terrorist watch list," Clarke reasoned at a Capitol Hill press conference today. "So it only makes sense to have a comprehensive 'clear' list." The bill. expected to be co-sponsored by House Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a consolidated database of people who have been mistakenly put on the list.
Whether Clarke's legislation is the right solution, recent government reports make clear that she is not dealing with an isolated problem. A Justice Department Inspector General's report found that of the 99,000 instances where a citizen crossing the border or boarding a plane matched a name on the Terrorist Screening Center's watchlist, 43 percent were cases of mistaken identity.
Of these "false positives" 16,000 have formally asked to be removed from the list and DHS, in concert with the Departments of State and Justice, has adjudicated 7,400 cases. Deciding that someone is, in fact, not a terrorist or associated with a terrorist takes an average of 67 days. According to the Inspector General's report, the Department has yet to define a reasonable timeframe for dealing with these redresses.
Handling complaints, however, is only the tip of the iceberg in dealing with a database that has gotten out of hand. DHS accepted the inspector general's assertion that the screening center lacks a procedure to monitor the accuracy of watchlist records or the ability to review the database and subsequently remove names.
The Department also accepted criticism by a Government Accountability Office report that, "The government lacks an up-to-date strategy and implementation plan-supported by clearly defined leadership or governance stucture-for enhancing the effectiveness of terrorist screening, consistent with presidential directives." In other words, no one knows how to use the data.
But the question of whether government can ever create an effective database that doesn't cause civil liberties violations and severe headaches remains taboo. Kathleen Kraninger, Director of the Screening Coordination Office at DHS, concluded that the watchlist has been part of successfully preventing a post-9/11 terrorist attack and, well, you can't prove her wrong.
And at a hearing today, Indiana Republican Mark Souder grew visibly nervous when problems surrounding the watchlist were being discussed a little too in-depth. "Asking how we might get the watchlist fixed is something that maybe shouldn't be done in a public forum," Souder argued. "We might be giving tips."
Souder was referring to aiding terrorists but hopefully the hearing and companion legislation will be less nefariously used to clean up a spiraling bureaucratic mess.