(CNSNews.com) - Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union told reporters on Monday that the U.S. government's terror watch list victimized innocent Americans and that flying is safer since 9/11 because of secured cockpits and the knowledge that passengers of Flight 93 fought back and tried to stop the terrorists on board.
"We did two things after 9/11 that made flying much, much safer," Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the ACLU said in response to a question about what would replace the list to help track people who might use airliners as weapons. "One is to reinforce the cockpit doors so it's no longer possible for terrorists to enter the cockpit,” said Steinhardt. “Secondly, and this happened with the fourth or fifth plane affected that day, we taught the passengers to fight back or they learned on their own to fight back.”
"As a result, we had one plane heading here to Washington -- to the White House or the Capitol -- that never made it because the passengers started to fight back," Steinhardt said.
The ACLU held a briefing at the National Press Club on Monday to announce what they said marks the occasion when the federal terror watch list will contain the names of 1 million terrorists -- a number the ACLU estimated would be on the list in July based on the 700,000 records on the watch list as of last September and adding 20,000 names each month, as forecast by the Justice Department's inspector general.
"The list is out of control," Steinhardt said. "Think about it. There cannot possibly be 1 million terrorists poised to attack us. If there were, our cities would be in ruins."
The ACLU presented two individuals they called victims, including Akif Rahman, a U.S. citizen and Chicago resident, who said he was regularly detained when he returned to the United States on international flights, including on one occasion when he was hand-cuffed and questioned for five hours.
When contacted by CNSNews.com, the federal Transportation Security Administration said it would not comment on any case of alleged mistreatment of a passenger. However, representatives from the federal government disputed the ACLU's claims about the list.
"There are not a million people on the list," said Chad Kolton, spokesman for the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which manages the list. "There are 400,000 people on the list and approximately 95 percent are not U.S. persons -- those who are not citizens or don't have legal residency. Additionally, the vast majority are not even in the United States."
Kolton, who spoke with CNSNews.com, said that the list contains more than 1 million records, or names that have been added to the list based on aliases, credit records, and other documentation, which can result in one person generating numerous entries on the list.
Kolton said a name or record is added to the list only after what he called a complex "nominating" process, which included detailed evidence from law enforcement linking an individual to terrorist acts or organizations.
"The average Joe American," Kolton said, is not on the list.
He said people who have names that are the same or similar to those on the list could face longer delays and more thorough screening at airports and be blocked from securing online tickets because officials are required to check identification documents in person.
The ACLU, which has only seen a list reported on by CBS in 2006, according to ACLU officials, also claimed that the watch list makes air travel less safe.
"The fact is, not only is (the list) a bureaucratic nightmare that has captured millions of people in its web, but it defers our security resources, so it actually makes us less safe," Steinhardt said.
Congress contends that the list has been an effective tool in fighting terrorism, according to a Oct. 11, 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office.
"Within the federal community, there is general agreement that the watch list has helped to combat terrorism," the report said.
"Because the list is an important tool for combating terrorism, GAO examined (1) standards for including individuals on the list, (2) the outcomes of encounters with individuals on the list, (3) potential vulnerabilities and efforts to address them, and (4) actions taken to promote effective terrorism-related screening,” the report continued. “To conduct this work, GAO reviewed documentation obtained from and interviewed officials at TSC, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies that perform terrorism-related screening.”
The same day of the ACLU's press conference, the Transportation Security Administration posted on the "Myth Buster" page of its Web site a response to the civil liberty group's claims.
"Assumptions about the list are just plain wrong," the page says. "While a September 2007 report may have said that there are 700,000 records on the terrorist watch list and it was growing by an average of 20,000 per month, that is not the same as the number of individuals on the watch list. A new ‘record’ is created for every alias, date-of-birth, passport and other identifying information for watch listed suspects. The ACLU (also) does not account for the name-by-name scrub that took place in the Fall of 2007 by all government agencies involved in the list through the Terrorist Screening Center."
The Transportation Security Administration said the "scrub" reduced the list by 50 percent and eliminated records of individuals that no longer pose a threat.