By Matt Cover
Former FBI agent Mike German, now a terrorism expert with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said that using the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) of 400,000-plus names to screen airline passengers was not realistic, and added that it was “fundamentally ridiculous” to think the list was not flawed.
German, speaking Monday at a Capitol Hill conference sponsored by the Arab American Institute to examine President Obama’s new airline screening policies, said the terrorist watch-listing system was “broken.”
“One of the most disappointing things about the whole review of this situation was this idea that the terrorist watch-listing system is not, itself, broken, which is fundamentally ridiculous,” said German.
“There are, as you say, 400,000 names on these, Terrorist Screening Center names, actually the number the [Justice Department] IG [Inspector General] put in his last report was 1.1 million identities,” German said. “I know that there is a distinction between names and identities and actual people, but we’re still talking about 1.1 million identities on this Terrorist Screening Center list and the number on the no-fly list is a small subset of that.”
According to Timothy J. Healy, director of the Justice Department’s Terrorist Screening Center, “the terrorist watch list is made up of approximately 400,000 people, ranging from suicide bombers to financiers. A small portion of the list is exported to TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] to create the No Fly list. In order to be placed on a No Fly list, a known or suspected terrorist must present a threat to civil aviation or national security.”
“Consequently, the No Fly list is a very small subset of the terrorist watch list,” Healy told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Dec. 9. “It contains approximately 3,400 people. Of those, approximately 170 are U.S. citizens,”
Thus, the 3,400 people on the No Fly list represent less than 1 percent, or 0.85 percent, of the 400,000 people on the full “Terrorist Watchlist.”
Healy testified in the committee a little more than two weeks before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to detonate explosives he had smuggled aboard in his underwear.
In his testimony, Healy had stressed the smallness of the “No Fly” list, a theme that had also been sounded a year before by then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
German said on Monday that the terrorist watchlist system has been broken “for years,” pointing out that names were added to the list incorrectly while others were kept on the list after investigators had cleared them of any involvement with terrorists.
A law enforcement officer stands guard near Northwest Airlines Flight 253, parked at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich., on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
“You don’t have to look to the ACLU to say that this system is broken, and it’s not that it just broke this time,” he said. “The IG at the Department of Justice has been looking at this for years and he has one report after another that says that this is fundamentally flawed.”
“There were people who were put on the list appropriately because they were under investigation, but when the investigation cleared them, they weren’t taken off the list,” said German. “There were people who were known terrorists, there were people who he [the IG] identified as known terrorists who were not on the list.”
German described the watchlist system as one of “tremendous false positives,” a fact that makes using the entire list as a tool to keep terrorists off of airplanes problematic.
“The whole listing process is broken and needs a fundamental overhaul,” said German. “We’re creating a system of tremendous false positives. We’ve created a system that creates hundreds, and probably hundreds of thousands, of false positives every day.”
The former counter-terrorism instructor offered that for the list to be effective officials need to “re-do” it to include only people the FBI and other national security agencies are not currently investigating.
“Putting 1.1 million people on a no-fly list when the evidence for putting them on there is in question, I think, isn’t the answer – it’s completely re-doing that list so that it only focuses on known terrorists,” he said. “There shouldn’t be anybody on that list who the FBI is not currently, and the other agencies, currently hunting down.”
German said that this method would not deny anyone their “right to fly” who is not under suspicion of being a terrorist.
“There shouldn’t be somebody sitting on the list who we’re saying is a terrorist – and perhaps denying their right to fly – and nobody’s actually looking for them,” he said.
After the briefing, German noted that the list has included well-known figures such as singer Cat Stevens and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), using those famous errors to make the point that trying to keep all 400,000 names on the TSDB list from entering the country would be impossible.
“If you look today at how many completely innocent people that’s impacted, people who have a name that looks like [a terror suspect’s], when you’re talking about 1.1 million names, I mean, how many names are there?” said German.
“At some point, when being one letter off or two letters off or having the first name, middle name, last name transposed in some order, you’re having an exponentially large impact on people who are totally innocent,” he said. “For every investigator who’s asked to go out and check on one of those false positives — we’re building up this system of false positives and that is actually undermining the effectiveness of our state and local law enforcement and federal law enforcement.”
January 6, 2010
Airport security buildups geared toward installing more body scanners at departure points have heartened investors who poured money into safety and security industries with the clear aim of profiting from current trends.
Amid low interest rates, investors moved large sums into security industries last year after expert forecasts that demand for equipment, expertise and services related to safety and security could only grow because of continuing threat perceptions worldwide.
Industry researcher Strategic Insight estimates that a record $400 billion moved into security industry bond funds during 2009, MarketWatch.com said.
The London Guardian newspaper said security industries hoped to profit from the current rush to install body scanners at airports and other checkpoints, including buildings, but there was little guarantee the new equipment would eliminate the threat.
The scanner manufacturers claim they would detect materials of the sort Nigerian Abdulmutallab allegedly took onto his Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, but experts caution that it would depend on a series of factors, not least the vigilance of the scanner operator, The Guardian said.
The body scanners are set to cause further delays in flight operations wherever they are installed, but they can still fail if the operator is not vigilant enough.
“It’s one of the big difficulties with airport security,” The Guardian quoted Flight International Editor Kieran Daly as saying. “You’re asking people to do a job which is not only very important and carries a very high risk if there is a failure, but is also exceptionally tedious.”
Body scanners can handle two to three people a minute, a little faster than a conventional frisk, the newspaper said. Once authorities decide to go ahead with deployment of the scanners, shareholders in the industry can look forward to significant returns on their investment because of the huge outlay of capital required by governments and corporations.
A single body scanner can cost up to $160,000, excluding training and maintenance, compared with $5,000 to 8,000 for a single industry-standard metal detector.
Still, chances of error can never be eliminated, industry analysts said.
Philip Baum, an aviation security expert, told The Guardian, “There is no one answer. The first step of the process should always be the proper use of the human brain: people making an intelligent decision as to which security lane a passenger goes down.”
Controversy also surrounds the kind of scanners being deployed. U.S. manufacturer Brijot told United Press International their machine protects passenger privacy and is better at detecting suspect materials in intimate body areas than most of the scanners currently deployed at airports.
Although Brijot machines are used by the U.S. military and in private palaces in the Middle East, mainly because of their privacy aspect, the manufacturer said it hopes its product will be brought into wider use.
In the meantime, incidents such as the Christmas Day bombing attempt have given new impetus to investors flocking into research and development of more effective anti-terrorist equipment with the hope of lucrative returns.