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America's terrifying terror list

October 25, 2007 16:40 IST

If the government of the United States and its terror mechanism are to be believed, the country faces potential terrorist threats from 755,000 people at last count.

Equally, it is apparent that the threat of terror is only escalating exponentially: the list, which featured 1,000 names in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington DC, had swelled to 158,374 by June of 2004; a year later it was 287,982; and in June 2006 that number had again swelled to 525,906.

The list is used to check people entering the country through border crossings, airports and seaports.

USA Today, while reporting on the latest numbers, points out that lawmakers, security experts and civil rights advocates warn that at the present rate of growth, the list will become totally valueless.

'It undermines the authority of the list,' the paper quotes Lisa Graves of the Center for National Security Studies as saying. 'There's just no rational, reasonable estimate that there's anywhere close to that many suspected terrorists.'

The Homeland Security Committee in the Senate is chaired by Joe Libermann, a Democrat and one time aspirant for presidential honors. He tells USA Today that he plans to call a meeting to discuss the list, and points out that 'serious hurdles remain if (the list) is to be as effective as we need it to be. Some of the concerns stem from its rapid growth, which could call into question the quality of the list itself.'

The Government Accountability Office, which released its report on the list this week, says that despite there being this list, and a smaller subset called the no-fly list comprising persons not allowed to board flights bound for the US, several people on that list had in fact boarded international flights to the US in recent times.

The terror list has, over the years, become something of a joke -- literally so at times, with late night talk show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno, and other political satirists ranging from Bill Maher to Jon Stewart, milking it for laughs.

Last year, Wired magazine mined government records to tell the story of a State Department diplomat who regularly gets hassled at airports because his name is on the terrorist list; of a technical director at a technology firm who works with the Pentagon on chemical and biological warfare defense systems and is on the list; an active duty Army officer who holds top security clearance and has served four tours of duty, including one in Afghanistan, who the list says is a suspected terrorist, and a former US Army officer and anti-terrorism expert, who finds himself on that list.

Amusingly, a Continental Airlines crew member found himself on that list, and pointed out the irony: "If I am safe enough to work on a plane then I should be fine to be a passenger sleeping."

Embarrassingly, a US Senator and his wife, who were not identified in news reports at the time, were detained at an airport because their names figured on the list of potential terrorists; in another instance, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was prohibited from flying because his name sparked a terror alert, as per an Associated Press report earlier this year. Apparently, the Senator's name came up on a no-fly list, while he was attempting to board a US Airways shuttle out of Washington.

Even more embarrassingly, when the Zapolskys tried to board a flight out of Dulles International, in Washington DC, their son was detained for 'further scrutiny' because his name was on the no-fly list. The son was 11 months old.

Being on the list causes problems that extend way beyond the check in counters of American airports -- in separate instances, a janitor was sacked because his name was erroneously placed on the list; various people have submitted written complaints to civil liberties unions pointing out that they have been denied home loans, and other facilities, for similar reasons.

To get off that list, you need to submit several notarized copies of their identification, following which the watchdog body will cross check their credentials and, if satisfied, issue them a letter clarifying their status.

In its story, Wired magazine pointed out that 28,000 people had filed the relevant paperwork; however, the authorities are not forthcoming about how many of these cases had been cleared.