Terrorist Watchlist reaches 1 million entries (representing about 400,000 individuals)

Published 13 March 2009

U.S. Terrorist Watchlist reaches 1 million entries; since many individuals on the list have several entries owing to the different ways in which their names may be rendered, the number of individuals on the list is about 400,000

This is may not reassure civil libertarians, but still: A year ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claimed that DHS’s Terrorist Watchlist has reached the 1-million name mark (see “ACLU: Terrorist Watch List Hits One Million Names,” 21 July 2008 HS Daily Wire). The Transportation Security Administration was quick to refute the facts and figures used by the ACLU in its claim (see “TSA: ACLU’s Terrorist Watch List Facts and Figures are a Myth,” 21 July 2008 HS Daily Wire). TSA’s Web site asserted: “”There are fewer than 400,000 individuals on the consolidated terrorist watch list and fewer than 50,000 individuals on the no-fly and selectee lists.”

It appears that the disagreement between the ACLU and TSA was a matter of terminology: TSA distinguished between “records” or “entires” (or, to use the FBI’s terminology, “identities”) and individuals. Because nearly all those on the list are foreigners, and because the names of many of them may be rendered in different ways in English, many of the individuals on the list have several identities, or records. Thus, USA Today’s Peter Eisler writes that the U.S. government’s terrorist watch list has indeed hit 1 million entries (read: “identities” or “records” or “entires”), up 32 percent since 2007. Federal data show the rise comes despite the removal of 33,000 entries last year by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center in an effort to purge the list of outdated information and remove people cleared in investigations.

Eisler says it is unclear how many individuals those 33,000 records represent — the center often uses multiple entries, or “identities,” for a person to reflect variances in name spellings or other identifying information. The remaining million entries represent about 400,000 individuals, according to the center.

The new figures were provided by the screening center and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) response to requests from USA Today. “We’re continually trying to improve the quality of the information,” says Timothy Edgar, a civil liberties officer at the intelligence director’s office. “It’s always going to be a work in progress.”

People put on the watch list by intelligence and law enforcement agencies can be blocked from flying, stopped at borders, or subjected to other scrutiny. About 95 percent of the people on the list are foreigners, the FBI says, but it is a source of frequent complaints from U.S. travelers.

Eisler writes that in the past two years, 51,000 people have filed “redress” requests claiming they were wrongly included on the watch list, according to DHS. In the vast majority of cases reviewed so far, it has turned out that the petitioners were not actually on the list, with most having been misidentified at airports because their names resembled others on it. There have been 830 redress requests since 2005 in which the person was, in fact, confirmed to be on the watch list, and further review by the screening center led to the removal of 150, or 18 percent of them.

Without specific rules for who goes on the list, it is too bloated to be effective, says Tim Sparapani, a lawyer with the ACLU. A 2007 audit by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said more needed to be done to ensure the list’s accuracy, but still found that it has “enhanced the U.S. government’s counterterrorism efforts.”