By A. Benjamin Mannes
As a former municipal and federal law enforcement officer and intelligence analyst, I’ve actually accessed the “terrorism watch list” that is currently garnering so much media attention of late. Like many Americans, I witnessed a contingent of the House Democratic caucus stage a sit-in to push through legislation restricting members of the watch list from getting a firearm. As someone who not only knows how terrorism watch lists work, as well as with firsthand experience relating to how changing gun laws can make law-abiding citizens into criminals, I felt the need to briefly explain the process.
First, the “terrorism watch list” is officially called the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), which the FBI consolidates from multiple agencies, and includes the TSA’s “no-fly list.”
The “no-fly list” is actually one specifying heightened “selectee” screening by the TSA, and normally nobody is actually restricted from flying after passing heightened screening. The TSDB list is estimated to contain over 2,484,442 records, consisting of 1,877,133 individual identities, with approximately 1,600 names submitted to it. About 600 names are removed and 4,800 records are modified by the intelligence community each day. Approximately one out of 20 of the people on the list are citizens or legal U.S. residents.
The Justice Department inspector general officially noted frequent errors on the list and slow response to complaints, finding 38 percent of a 105-record sample contained gross inaccuracies. Ten years ago, a review of the no-fly list reduced its size by half, from 71,872 records to 34,230 records.
One of the most obvious reasons for the inaccuracies is that names are submitted to the list in the process of investigations or intelligence gathering, often for subjects who have been unseen. Therefore, given common naming conventions in many cultures outside the United States, it’s possible that there are thousands of innocent people in the nation with the same name as a subject on the TSDB.
While there are multiple reasons for these inaccuracies, it is important to understand that the TSDB is a watch list, not a criminal record, and is used in security screenings and investigations that could lead to a trial. The vast majority of records in the TSDB use Muslim naming conventions, meaning that potentially thousands of innocent American Muslims will have their right to purchase a firearm to defend themselves stripped with little to no adjudication process, simply because someone on the TSDB had the same name and gender.
Therefore, I plead for our elected representatives to seek out more effective, common-sense legislation to address the issue of mass violence.
A. Benjamin Mannes is a governor on InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection.