Harper on Watchlists

by on October 6, 2006 · 14 comments

Jim is apparently too modest to whore his posts out to multiple blogs, but his comments on terrorist watch lists are very good, so I’m going to do it for him:

In the U.S., people who have done something wrong are supposed to be arrested, taken to court and charged, then permitted to contest the accusation. If they are found guilty, they pay money or serve time in jail.

Watch-listing follows no similarly familiar pattern. Law enforcement or national security personnel place a person on a list and then, wherever that list is used, treat the person (and other people with the same name) differently, stopping them, interrogating them, searching them, or whatever the case may be. This unilateral process is alien to our legal system.

Rather than watch-listing, people who are genuinely suspected of being criminals or terrorists should be sought, captured, charged, tried, and, if convicted, sentenced. Watch-listing allows law enforcement to be very active and intrusive without actually doing what it takes to protect against crime and terrorist acts. In Identity Crisis, I wrote that “watch listing and identification checking [are] like posting a most-wanted list at a post office and then waiting for criminals to come to the post office.”

At the national border, watch-listing must be used–deftly–because we cannot reach wrongdoers worldwide. Those watch-lists allow us to be vigilant against bad people who may arrive on our shores. Domestically, though–in our free country–the practice should end.

Quite so.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Aw, shucks. Thanks, Tim.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Aw, shucks. Thanks, Tim.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Where is your other blog Jim?

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Noel Le

    Where is your other blog Jim?

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Wars are different than crimes.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Wars are different than crimes.

  • http://www.randomtruth.com randomtruth

    It’s obvious that the watch list system is flawed, but do you really think it should only be used for international flights? What if someone with bad intentions gets through at an international checkpoint – should they then have their free run of domestic air flights? What if we only learn about their bad intentions after they get inside the country? Or, what about home grown terrorists?

    And, how is the watch list any different from all of the other places the police maintain or put out watch list equivalents, such as amber alerts, all points bulletins, wanted posters, TV broadcasts, etc.?

    Isn’t the real problem here false positives? I.e., if they could get false positives down to ‘almost never’ then wouldn’t a well run watch list system be a good thing?

  • http://www.randomtruth.com randomtruth

    BTW – when I first read the headline “Harper on Watchlists” I thought “Oh great – what has he done now?”

  • http://www.randomtruth.com randomtruth

    It’s obvious that the watch list system is flawed, but do you really think it should only be used for international flights? What if someone with bad intentions gets through at an international checkpoint – should they then have their free run of domestic air flights? What if we only learn about their bad intentions after they get inside the country? Or, what about home grown terrorists?

    And, how is the watch list any different from all of the other places the police maintain or put out watch list equivalents, such as amber alerts, all points bulletins, wanted posters, TV broadcasts, etc.?

    Isn’t the real problem here false positives? I.e., if they could get false positives down to ‘almost never’ then wouldn’t a well run watch list system be a good thing?

  • http://www.randomtruth.com randomtruth

    BTW – when I first read the headline “Harper on Watchlists” I thought “Oh great – what has he done now?”

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Walter, though the phrase “war on terror” is used incessantly, there is no war on terror. Terror has no chance of claiming any U.S. territory. Indeed, terror is a strategy, a mental construct, which can never claim any territory. (In case you think it’s relevant, Congress authorized the use of military force. It did not declare war. It could have declared war and didn’t – for a reason.)

    This is important because many people have abandoned careful, rational thought about the security dilemmas created by terrorism – opting to throw their hands in the air (and liberties to the ground) to simply incant about “war.”

    Randomtruth, thanks for your thoughtful questions. “Wanted” lists and “watch” lists are very different. When someone is on a wanted list – like all the things you list – they are arrested, charged, etc. More important than listing them is actively seeking people who are wanted. This is what should be done. “Listing” people who are not wanted makes no sense to me, and it’s inconsistent with our constitutional and legal system.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/harper.html Jim Harper

    Walter, though the phrase “war on terror” is used incessantly, there is no war on terror. Terror has no chance of claiming any U.S. territory. Indeed, terror is a strategy, a mental construct, which can never claim any territory. (In case you think it’s relevant, Congress authorized the use of military force. It did not declare war. It could have declared war and didn’t – for a reason.)

    This is important because many people have abandoned careful, rational thought about the security dilemmas created by terrorism – opting to throw their hands in the air (and liberties to the ground) to simply incant about “war.”

    Randomtruth, thanks for your thoughtful questions. “Wanted” lists and “watch” lists are very different. When someone is on a wanted list – like all the things you list – they are arrested, charged, etc. More important than listing them is actively seeking people who are wanted. This is what should be done. “Listing” people who are not wanted makes no sense to me, and it’s inconsistent with our constitutional and legal system.

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