The federal government’s terrorist watchlist has hit approximately 2 million people worldwide, and includes thousands of Americans, CBS News reports. This revelation, derived from an extensive review of court records, government documents, and interviews with intelligence community leaders, paints a complex picture of national security measures and civil liberties.
The Terrorist Screening Dataset, a consolidated watchlist of individuals deemed as known or suspected terrorists, has seen a dramatic increase in numbers. Launched in 2003 with approximately 120,000 individuals, it ballooned to 1.6 million individuals by 2017. As of the end of 2023, this figure has reached an astonishing 2 million, including, as we noted, thousands of Americans.
According to Russ Travers, a four-decade veteran of the U.S. intelligence community who helped create the watchlist: “It doesn’t mean they’re a terrorist. It means there’s something that has led a department or agency to say, ‘This person needs a closer look.'” However, the criteria for adding individuals to this list remain shrouded in secrecy, with the government neither confirming nor denying an individual’s presence on the list.
Monte Hawkins, overseeing watchlisting policy for President Biden, claims that “those 2 million people who are on the list are on there for a reason,” with a majority being non-U.S. citizens or legal residents. Yet, the lack of transparency and accountability in this process raises significant concerns.
National security officials acknowledge that there are people listed in the consolidated terrorist database whose names should probably be removed, but that there isn’t enough staff to audit every person’s file regularly.
“I’m sure that there are a lot of people that are in the database that are dead, that we don’t even know it,” said Travers.
The interagency group that oversees the watchlist also administers a second list targeting primarily American gangs with international ties. That other watchlist, known as the Transnational Organized Crime Actor Detection Program, contains another 40,000 individuals, according to a recent audit obtained by CBS News. -CBS News
People on the watchlist have faced various challenges – from being prevented from flying, to failing background checks for employment. The Department of Homeland Security acknowledges that 98% of complaints filed were due to “false positives,” often caused by name similarities.
One striking case involved a Stanford PhD student, who after a nine-year legal battle, was removed from the watchlist due to an FBI agent’s clerical error.
In one case, it took a Stanford PhD student fighting a nine-year court battle to prove that she was wrongfully listed; the FBI finally admitted she was watchlisted by mistake because an agent had accidentally checked a wrong box.
The FBI told CBS News that it recently revised its criteria to require more identifying information about individuals for them to be added to the database. If enough information is not provided for any individual, that person won’t be listed, and people already on the list will be removed if their files are deemed too thin under the new standard. Officials said they were also prioritizing the collection of biometrics, particularly faces and fingerprints, to reduce cases of mistaken identity. -CBS News
According to the report, the threat of both foreign and domestic terrorism are on the rise, which intelligence community insiders (of course) say means that the watchlist is a critical part of its “early warning system.”
Many in the civil liberties field as well as former counterterrorism insiders who have worked directly on the watchlist, have expressed grave concerns over the system’s expansion – noting a multitude of government abuses, errors, and a lack of willingness to admit to and correct mistakes since it launched.
“People might think that the watchlisting system is a remnant of 9/11. It is not,” said Hina Shamsi, National Security Project director at the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is a system that has only expanded.”