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Myth Buster: TSA's Watch List is More Than One Million People Strong

Myth Buster

MYTH: TSA's watch list has more than 1 million names on it.

Updated! BUSTER: First, TSA doesn't have a watch list. TSA is a customer of the Terrorist Screening Center, a component of the FBI that is responsible for maintaining the consolidated terrorist watch list. TSA uses two subsets of this list, the no-fly and selectee lists.

At an October 22, 2008 press conference, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said there are less than 16,000 individuals on the selectee and no fly lists, which contain information about known or suspected terrorists that reach a threshold at which they either should not be allowed to fly, or should get additional scrutiny. Of the 16,000, less than 2,500 individuals are on the no fly list, and less than ten percent are U.S. persons.

The TSC has publicly stated 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 currently in the U.S.

MYTH: There are 1 million names on U.S. Government terror watch lists.

BUSTER: According to the Terrorist Screening Center, there are less than 400,000 individuals on the consolidated terrorist watch list. 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 by July 2008.

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, which 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 did 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. On October 22, 2008, the Secure Flight Final Rule was published, a big step toward the implementation of TSA's Secure Flight initiative that will GREATLY reduce the number of misidentifications.

Under Secure Flight, TSA assumes watch list matching from dozens of airlines and implements a uniform, efficient matching process. Today the Department of Homeland Security'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.

Facts About Terror Watch Lists

  • Terror watch lists keep legitimate terror threats off of airplanes every day, all over the world.
  • According to the Congress' investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, terror watch lists have, "helped combat terrorism" and "enhanced U.S. counterterrorism effort."
  • Our partners in the law enforcement and intelligence communities work tirelessly and in some cases under great physical danger to identify individuals that pose a terror threat. The simple truth is that it would be negligent to not use this information to our advantage.