web Musings of The Global Traveller

Thursday, July 24, 2008

TSA Watchlist a False Security

In my previous blog entry I explained how the TSA’s claim of "small" selectee and no fly watchlist is nothing of the sort and impacts millions. Many readers will, however, have noticed that I omitted (deliberately in the interests of space) some key arguments against a watchlist. This entry covers those arguments.

In tv crime shows the detective or lawyer looks for 3 angles to assess guilt – motive, opportunity and means. I’ll use these in a different way, to assess the worth of having the watchlist.

For the sake of argument, lets suppose the watchlist is perfect. There are no false positives (name of an innocent matches someone on the list or an innocent name is on the list). The watchlist, then, is a list of names of those who have the motive for terrorism based on perfect intelligence. But perfect intelligence is an oxymoron. It is relatively easy for a terrorist to avoid being on the list, or to find someone else who is not on the list to do the evil deed. So the watchlist is insufficient to prove motive, or to put it another way does not filter passengers into those with motive and those without. Not a good start against the criteria.

Next consider opportunity. Pretty much everyone who flies, works in or near airports or airlines has an opportunity to do harm. It is a fact of life, and really by definition, that you cannot prevent opportunity for terrorism. This criteria therefore is no help at all, and again the presence or absence of a name on a watchlist proves nothing.

What about means? This is where security really should be, and leave the rest of the window dressing alone. If the means are prevented then there can be no terrorist attack. The names on a watchlist matter not to means either.

Thus, the watchlist does not improve security – it is a false security.

But wait, there’s more. If the 50,000 people on the no fly and selectee watchlists really all are going to crash or hijack planes, shouldn’t they all be arrested? The 50,000 are not arrested because the intelligence is imperfect. They don’t have sufficient proof of terrorist intent and means, and the outcry from so many false arrests would show up the lists as the sham they are. The bigger the list gets and the more times the importance of the watchlist is emphasised by TSA, the harder it is for a reversal, an admission of error. That is really unfortunate, especially for the millions of innocents caught up in the dragnet (refer my previous blog entry).

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