The Weaknesses of Watch-Listing

“Watch-listing” — the practice of putting bad people’s names on a list and treating them differently at places like airports — is fraught with difficulty. 

As to sophisticated threats, it’s a Maginot line. Easy to evade, it provides no protection against people who haven’t yet done anything wrong, who haven’t come to the attention of security officials, or who have adopted an alias. Terrorist planners are nothing more than inconvenienced by having to use people with “clean” records.

Paying to inconvenience any such terrorists are (taxpayers, of course, and) all the people wrongly treated as suspects because they have the same or similar names as listed people. 

On its website, CBS News is previewing its upcoming 60 Minutes story on watch-listing, and they’ve assembled a large group of Robert Johnsons to attest to their experience with watch-listing. They share the same name as a Robert Johnson that someone deemed appropriate to put on a list.

Watch-listing has a deeper flaw, though.  It does not fit with our system of law enforcement.

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.