The terrorist watch list debateTSA: ACLU’s terrorist watch list facts and figures are a myth

Published 21 July 2008

The Transportation Security Administration refutes the facts and figures used by the ACLU in the latter’s claim that the list is now 1-million strong

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not take the terrorist watch list assertions by the ACLU lying down. The agency’s Web site offers detailed refutations of the claims made by the ACLU:

Myth: TSA’s watch list has more than 1 million names on it

Buster: First, TSA does not have a watch list. TSA is a customer of the Terrorist Screening Center, a component of the FBI which is responsible for maintaining the consolidated terrorist watch list. The center has said publicly that there are fewer than 400,000 individuals on the overall consolidated watch list, 95 percent of whom are not U.S. persons and the vast majority of whom are not even in the United States. TSA uses two subsets of this list, the no-fly and selectee lists. These small subsets of the overall list are reserved for known or suspected terrorists that reach a threshold where they should not be allowed to fly, or should get additional scrutiny.

Myth: There are 1 million names on U.S. government terror watch lists

Buster: 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. Individuals on the no-fly and selectee lists are identified by law enforcement and intelligence partners as legitimate threats to transportation requiring either additional screening or prohibition from boarding an aircraft.

Myth: The ACLU’s math estimates that there will be 1 million people on government watch lists this July

Buster: Assumptions about the list are just plain wrong. While a September 2007 report may have said that there are 700,000 records on the terrorist watch list and it was growing by an average of 20,000 per month, this is not the same as the number of individuals on the watch lists. A new “record” is created for every alias, date-of-birth, passport, and other identifying information for watch listed suspects. The ACLU does not account for the name-by-name scrub that took place in the Fall of 2007 by all government agencies involved with the lists through the Terrorist Screening Center. This review reduced the no-fly and selectee lists by almost 50 percent and eliminated records of individuals that no longer pose a threat.

Myth: Ted Kennedy, Catherine Stevens, and “Robert Johnson” are all on the no-fly or selectee watch lists

Buster: These individuals are not on the no-fly or selectee lists. They, and other Americans, are being misidentified as individuals on the selectee list. Today watch list matching is carried out by the airlines for every passenger manifest. In cases when individuals with similar names are misidentified, folks experience inconvenience like no remote check-in but they are allowed to fly. Once TSA’s Secure Flight initiative is in place the number of misidentifications will be greatly reduced. Under Secure Flight, TSA assumes watch list matching from dozens of airlines and implements a uniform, efficient matching process. Today DHS’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) is a single point of contact for individuals who have inquiries or seek resolution regarding difficulties they experienced during their travel screening at transportation hubs — like airports and train stations — or crossing U.S. borders.