Although privacy advocates, civil libertarians and foes of big government will undoubtedly have deep reservations, the creation of a unified national terrorist "watch list" is both inevitable and necessary.
Nine federal agencies already keep 12 such lists, and this will just consolidate them, if the bugs can be worked out, into a single, instantly accessible database maintained by the FBI. Backers of the watch list say that if it had been in operation before 9/11 at least two of the suicide hijackers would likely have been nabbed.
The database would include not only known and suspected terrorists but the list of felons and fugitives already carried by the FBI's National Crime Information Center. The master database also will contain Homeland Security's "no fly" list and the State Department's watch list of suspected terrorists.
The new Terrorist Screening Center will be available to airport screeners, immigration officers, local police making traffic stops, personnel officers at sensitive installations and the Border Patrol. It will truly be a wide-ranging net.
Creating a master watch list was one of the first recommendations to come out of 9/11. The complexity of the task is one of the reasons it has taken this long. And the effectiveness of the database will only be as good as the information going into it. Still to be resolved are specific guidelines for branding someone a "suspected" terrorist and resolving the problem of names with multiple spellings.
One vital safeguard will be the establishment of an efficient procedure for people wrongly labeled as terrorists to clear their names and get off the list. The Screening Center has a real potential for ruining the lives of people inadvertently sucked into the database.
And given the government's past abuse of lists it compiled of leftists, civil-rights agitators, antiwar protesters and people generally with offbeat political and social agendas, darker fears of a national blacklist are not terribly far-fetched.
Two branches of government — Congress and the courts — are entrusted with seeing those abuses don't happen, and it is up to them to see that the Terrorist Screening Center doesn't stray from its mission.