Terror Screening System-the Real Purpose

I’m bewildered over all the fuss surrounding the recent revelations that every international traveler entering or leaving the US for the last four years has been given a "terrorism risk" assessment—and this assessment will reside in a secret file for 40 YEARS after the border crossing.

I’m not disputing that this is an outrageous and unacceptable invasion of privacy, and that 40 years is far too long to keep this information on file. But come on now, people, what do you expect?

We’ve accepted the "no fly" rules like sheep. How do you think the government has decided to put on the no fly list? Through the secret terrorism risk assessment system, of course. Indeed, I suspect the no fly list wouldn’t exist without this system in place.

I’ve long maintained that the "no fly" rules have very little to do with security and are in fact designed to identify political opponents to the Bush administration. This may sound like a paranoid fantasy, but here’s my reasoning.

According to the Homeland Security Administration, about 400 million people enter or leave the US each year. HSA won’t say how many of these people it considers terrorists, but there are about 44,000 on the no fly list, as of late September. We know the overwhelming number of these people aren’t terrorists—after all, people like Sen. Ted Kennedy are on the list—but let’s say that 1% of the people on the list are, in fact, terrorists.

That means that for each terrorist the super-duper data mining software used by the HSA’s "National Targeting Center" correctly identifies, it misidentifies 100 people like Sen. Kennedy as potential terrorists. If in fact, the HSA’s efforts have resulted in terrorists being apprehended—and it’s not talking—then some might believe this is an acceptable cost. But consider that the people on the no-fly list include 14 of the Sept. 11 2001 hijackers who have been dead for five years; convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, now serving a life sentence; and Saddam Hussein, who has been sentenced to death in Baghdad. Given these facts, you begin to wonder how accurate this system really is, and what its actual purpose might be.

The HSA surely knows this, yet it persists in its data-mining program, ostensibly to find terrorists, in spite of the number of falsely identified terrorists vastly outnumbering real terrorists, not to mention having numerous dead and incarcerated real terrorists on its no fly list What then is the real purpose of the HSA program?

It turns out that looking for other types of people who are not as rare as terrorists is much more plausible using data mining technologies. For instance, there are a lot of international travelers who don’t like George Bush. Some of them may subscribe to anti-Bush publications, make phone calls to other people who don’t like Bush, etc. Since all of these records are "mined" by the National Targeting Center, it would be easy for the HSA to use this information to identify Bush political opponents.

In other words, while the HSA program is almost useless for identifying terrorists, it’s an extremely effective way for the government to engage in mass political intelligence gathering. And that’s what I think it’s being used for.

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