On a recent business trip I sat next to a gentleman who told me he was on a government watchlist. Trying not to look nervous and in my head debating whether or not I should ask for a different seat, I asked him how he knew this. He said every time he went through security he was pulled aside and subjected to secondary screening. The man was obviously a seasoned business traveler and he said after the fourth or fifth time he started telling TSA officers that he was on the list. They immediately pulled him aside, screened him, and sent him on his way. "It's great," he told me. He hasn't waited in a security line since.
Well, few of us would have the same sentiment about being included on a government watchlist, especially the no-fly list. I just read an article on NPR that the FBI is saying the list isn't as long as people think:
"About 10,000," said Timothy Healy, director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the list. "And [the number of] U.S. citizens on the no-fly list is even much smaller, between 500 and 1,000."
But, the government won't say who is or is not on the list. Douglas Laird (also of SDN fame) told NPR that the system isn't perfect—and would-be terrorists can get around it.
"If that person is a professional, it's too easy to change an identity, so for that reason I wouldn't put a lot of faith in the system," Laird says.
I think having such a system has its place - there are certainly people we don't want on planes - but like every other system, there needs to be checks and balances. Intelligence gathering is probably the most challenging, and, also one of the most important tasks for federal agencies and it has to continue refining such systems to make sure it only hinders the bad guys. And, the government also has to expand training so personnel can spot suspicious behavior or activity and people who aren't on such watchlists are still identified and scrutinized.