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Watchlist needs reform

More than a million people in our country are “known or suspected” terrorists, according to the government, in a claim that reaches astronomical heights of imbecility.

It makes sense for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to maintain a list of people who truly pose threats to Americans. But adding names to it based on flimsy or no evidence is both wrong and dangerous.

Maintaining such a list is also unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenda has ruled. Trenga, whose district includes eastern Virginia, issued his decision in a lawsuit filed by 23 Muslims who are American citizens. They received support from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Being placed on the federal watchlist subjected them to multiple problems, plaintiffs in the case said. Invasive searches at airports and sometimes being handcuffed at border crossings were cited.

Trenga’s concern, as he wrote in a 31-page decision, is that many people are placed on the watchlist without good cause. “There is no evidence, or contention, that any of these plaintiffs satisfy the definition of a ‘known terrorist,'” the judge wrote.

Inclusion on the watchlist “does not require any evidence that the person engaged in criminal activity, committed a crime, or will commit a crime in the future,” Trenga added.

What the judge will require the government to do about the watchlist is yet to be determined.

Clearly, safeguarding both national security and the safety of Americans, both here and abroad, is a high-priority responsibility of federal agencies. But if anything, the watchlist may be counterproductive.

Several people familiar with intelligence-gathering work have pointed out that an enormous database of potential threats can divert attention from the few who pose real, perhaps imminent danger.

Names on the watchlist are distributed to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies – and, it was revealed in Trenga’s courtroom, to more than 500 private entities. The risk of a “little boy who cried wolf” situation, in which those capable of acting against terrorist threats consciously or subconsciously become apathetic due to the sheer number of names on the watchlist, is substantial.

Both to stop infringing upon the rights of innocent Americans – there are not more than 1 million potential terrorists in our country – is one reason to reform the watchlist. Another is to ensure that it is effective in spotting true danger.