Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TERRORISTS EVERYWHERE....Yesterday I mentioned our ever-expanding terrorist watch list and implied that it contained a staggering 500,000 names. A reader reminds me that this number is way low. According to the GAO, the combined watch list contained 755,000 records in May 2007. I've helpfully reproduced the GAO graph below, adding my own projections through May 2008 in red. If TSC is continuing to add new names at the same galloping rate they have for the past six years, the watch list now contains over a million names. Maybe even yours!

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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oooh look, it's following Moore's Law.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 2, 2008 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK


What's the number discounted to the infinite time horizon?

Posted by: bobbyp on May 2, 2008 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Where are they getting the new names?

Must be friends and associates of all the attackers who've blown things up in this country in the last couple of years. Oh, wait a minute...

Maybe they're Democrats with tans.

Posted by: cmac on May 2, 2008 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Norquist. There are people working for the government who aren't worth the paper their paychecks are printed on.

Posted by: B on May 2, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

I saw somewhere the other day that Nelson Mandela is on the terrorist watch list.

Posted by: ET on May 2, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

The good news is that this will have to taper off when they either run out of non-unique names or we're all terrorists.

Posted by: AJB on May 2, 2008 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, but, to be fair, several hundred thousand of those names are of men who were al Qaeda number threes.

Posted by: Stefan on May 2, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

How long until everyone in the world is on the list? This might add to the financial difficulties of the airline industry.

Posted by: ohcomeonhussein on May 2, 2008 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Looks like we're not winning the "War On Terror".

Posted by: ckelly on May 2, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

I get 2038 when all of America is on the list (340,416,192) and 2060 until the whole world is hassled at the airport (9,041,444,446)

Posted by: rusrus on May 2, 2008 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

I get a higher number -- about 1.2 million -- assuming that the ratio remains the same between the last two years.

Posted by: idlemind on May 2, 2008 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

US intelligence agencies know who comment at liberal blogs, and the list will grow until all of them are on it.

Posted by: Brojo on May 2, 2008 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

But, Arabs are generally in the list under three assumed names!

Posted by: Matt on May 2, 2008 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

This is in keeping with the philosophy and policies of the Unitary Executive. Many of the UE's signing statements are purposely vague to give the UE the options he needs to fight the war on terror.

While there may not be 1.5 million active terrorists in the U.S., there are many citizens who may be providing material support to the enemy, for example by criticizing the UE. By adding persons suspected of actively or potentially providing material support to terrorists, this gives the UE a lead in identifying potential troublemakers for future action.

Posted by: Luther on May 2, 2008 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK


Are we sufficiently frightened now?

Posted by: bigcat on May 2, 2008 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

As we get closer to the election, the numbers will skyrocket.... as all registered democrats become deemed unpatriotic, hence terrorists. Isn't that sort of what the GOP wants us to believe?

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on May 2, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Stefan, if they're all al Qaeda number threes, they should be mostly dead people then.

Posted by: cmac on May 2, 2008 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

"There are people working for the government who aren't worth the paper their paychecks are printed on."

Let's amend that to more accurately reflect the real situation:

There are people working for THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION who aren't worth the paper their paychecks are printed on.

Posted by: herbert on May 2, 2008 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

CKelly: Looks like we're not winning the "War On Terror".

No, no, you've missed the point. The War on Terror will be won when we're ALL terrorists. And we're getting closer every day.

Posted by: John on May 2, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

Umm--it says "records", not "names". What's the odds that they have multiple records (representing different source agencies) for each unique individual? Unfortunately, it's hard to ensure the Joe Smith the CIA knows is also the Joe Smith the FBI knows.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw on May 2, 2008 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

Well, Stefan, if they're all al Qaeda number threes, they should be mostly dead people then.

The fact that they're dead doesn't mean that we can afford to stop keeping an eye on them. Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty.

Posted by: Stefan on May 2, 2008 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

Hurray, this is what they make computers for. I smell some really sweet lucrative contracts!

For those who remember GIGO - shhhhhhhhhh. For those who remember the earlier "Think," it is too late for that.

Posted by: Tripp on May 2, 2008 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, if we have McCain's 100 year war we will all eventually be terrorists.

Posted by: j swift on May 2, 2008 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

So "Kevin Drum" if that's your real name -- where are you getting your info on future increases in terrorists? Hmm?

Posted by: BarryG on May 2, 2008 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

As a conservationist, I would advocate keeping a list of people who aren't terror suspects, to save disk space and/or trees.

Posted by: thersites on May 2, 2008 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

By sometime in 2019 or 2020, the entire population of the United States will be on the list and we will have reverted a desirable condition in which all of us are treated equally by DHS. :-)

Posted by: ursus on May 2, 2008 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK


Great idea. As a Republican I say people should be able to buy their way onto the 'no terrorist' list. The fee should be pretty high though, to keep out the riffraff.

Posted by: Tripp on May 2, 2008 at 5:00 PM | PERMALINK

So what is it, like every Muslim in a red state who ever gave a hick a look he perceived as unfriendly is now on the watch list?

Re: the Mandela thing

I'll bet my right arm that some ultra-conservative asshole who works at the place where they put the names on the watch-list just added Mandela's name on his own volition as some wildly unprofessional joke.

And I wouldn't be surprised if, once it was discovered, another asshole decided that it would be great psywar both against black people, and in promotion of racism, to order Condi to say something about it and to say that it was "embarassing" (with the "in between the lines" suggestion you're supposed to get from it being that it's embarassing for black people- rather than the national security agencies).

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

How else can they keep Americans scared-stupid ??

Posted by: ZombieNation on May 2, 2008 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

Since the list is so large and unwiedly, I have my doubts that it is even really used for anything practical, and is more than just a propaganda device (that gets itself in the news because it makes it harder for people to do a few things).

To put it another way, if it's so horrible really to be on the watch list and then try to go on a flight or buy a home or whatever, I wonder if we are really assigning people to start watching and investigating people on this very large list when they try to do one of those things. Seems like we don't have enough people to spend on empty leads. I think that line after September 11th about chasing down every lead was more to get dumb cops willing to enforce a police state than it was to really pursue a policy- what never changed after September 11th is that some leads makes sense to follow, and some are just BS, and should never be followed up (at least more than very briefly), and no terrorism attack no matter how bad should have made the cops become unrealistic in how they approach their work. 750,000 names or more- give me a break!

Posted by: Swan on May 2, 2008 at 5:15 PM | PERMALINK

It is well known that critics of the Bush misadmin etc. get on the list. Remember hearing stuff like "Oh, criticized the President? Yeah, that'll do it ..." It was in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and/or etc.

Posted by: Z on May 2, 2008 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

Swan, Mandela is said to be on the list since he was affiliated (a leader, indeed) of the African National Congress, which the US counted as a terrorist organization because they were willing to use force to dislodge the white apartheid SA government. But after Mandela won an election way back in '94, and they were the ruling party, it is absurd to have him and other former ANC put through hoops to get into the USA.

Here's an interesting quote from Wikipedia; note the short interval from election to swearing in:

South Africa's first democratic elections in which full enfranchisement was granted were held on 27 April 1994. The ANC won 62% of the votes in the election, and Mandela, as leader of the ANC, was inaugurated on 10 May 1994 as the country's first black President...

Posted by: Neil B. on May 2, 2008 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

At this rate, when will everyone in the world be prevented from flying?

Posted by: Rob_in_Hawaii on May 2, 2008 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK

The 500,000 wasn't said to be the list; it was the part of the list that got frequent hits.

Swan, they're not necessarily investigating the 500,000 or 750,000 people. These include a lot of schmoes who got fingered by someone or some accident but won't ever really be investigated because there are too many of them. At the airport, it doesn't matter how large the list is, it searches at the speed of electrons in silicon.

Posted by: anandine on May 2, 2008 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

If you are unaware, you may wan't to Google Archbishop Tutu after it was announced he would be speaking at St.Thomas University, St. Paul, MN this spring.


It ain't just Bushtwits on this gig.

Everyone on the right seems to want to use scariness for an argument.

Posted by: notthere on May 2, 2008 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

The Washington Times, of all places, has an article about Federal Air Marshals being kept off of places they were supposed to protect, because they were on the no-fly list.

Posted by: OriGuy on May 2, 2008 at 10:43 PM | PERMALINK

Neil B., I'm still skeptical. I don't think that old association is a good enough reason for why he's (now) on the list. I think a far more compelling explanation would be that some white guy is angry at black guys who fought apartheid.

Anandine, if you look at my comment, I don't think they're investigating 500,000 or 750,000 people. I think that investigating and watching that many people would require something like 500,000 or 750,000 investigators, and I think that's totally ludicrous to find what can't be more than a few dozen real terrorists out of the several hundred thousand names. The list's being a list of innocent schmoes was the crux of my comments, and my complaint that if treat we these "leads" are serious- worth messing with people's lives over- it's probably a waste of manpower, had to do partially with the logistics of doing legitimate investigations (requiring thousands of investigators) and had nothing to do with the computer searches. Of course I know, as does everybody and as you note, that computer searches routinely take seconds. Investigations, however, take a lot more resources and time than that.

Posted by: Swan on May 3, 2008 at 12:03 AM | PERMALINK

Signal to noise ratio is ridiculous and untenable. They wanted to spy on all democrats, ignore terrorists, and enrich themselves, obviously. Making the country safer? Not even close.

Posted by: Sparko on May 3, 2008 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

Although I have no doubt that our national security community would spend inordinate amounts of time & resources checking out bullshit...
They probably have lists of "People who refused to wear flag pins" and "Little hospitalized kids with cancer who didn't smile when a police officer visited them" somewhere.

Posted by: Swan on May 3, 2008 at 12:19 AM | PERMALINK

anandine: The 500,000 wasn't said to be the list; it was the part of the list that got frequent hits.

Something amiss there? The GAO report shows that the majority of records (out of the 755K total) are foreign (non-US citizens and permanent residents), yet that the vast majority of "encounters" are from domestic law enforcement hits--and the list they use is the second smallest subset of records; the no-fly/selectee list is the smallest.

Posted by: has407 on May 3, 2008 at 12:36 AM | PERMALINK

some white guy[s] is[are] angry

They serve US intelligence, which is not in service to any constitutional ideal.

Posted by: Brojo on May 3, 2008 at 3:28 AM | PERMALINK

Looks like the "War on Terror" is about as successful as the "War on Drugs".

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on May 3, 2008 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

The return of Dinsdale Piranha and the giant hedgehog, Spiny Norman, "anything up to eight hundred yards long". It's... Monty... Python's... Flying... Circus!!!


Posted by: Andrew D. Todd on May 3, 2008 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

I think the TSA is in cahoots with the private jet companies.
Are you on the terror watch list, can't get to Grandma's for Thanksgiving on United? - book a private jet instead. No long security lines, just costs 5x more than commercial - but how else are you going to get there - can't afford to drive with gas at $20gallon.

Posted by: CParis on May 3, 2008 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

The whole concept of this list is problematic even before you get to questions of its accuracy.

If you cannot be arrested or detained for what you have supposedly done wrong, then how can the state use your unproven "wrongness" to prevent you from participating in the economy? Being prevented from flying because someone put your name or a name like yours on the list is tantamount to convicting you of a crime without due process. You did not get to defend yourself prior to being placed on the list. Now you can't fly and you hav e no recourse.

Posted by: gex on May 5, 2008 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK
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