Washington — A growing terrorist watchlist and numerous screening processes implemented after the 9/11 attacks to identify travelers who could be a threat are uncoordinated and too broad, a dynamic that pose risk to national security, according to a new Senate report.
The 43-page report, released Tuesday by Democrats on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the watchlist and nearly two dozen screening processes can “spread limited national security resources out broadly rather than effectively target changing threats.” The procedures lack oversight, and Americans have “insufficient” options if they are subject to wrongful screenings.
“A watchlist that is not properly maintained, coupled with unnecessarily duplicative screening practices that are not frequently assessed for their effectiveness is a risk to our national security. It may not reflect the latest threats, it could overextend limited security resources that should be focused on the best ways to protect Americans, and it breaks the trust with innocent Americans who get caught up in this net with no way out,” the report said.
“As the size of the watchlist and screening enterprise grows, so does the chance of misidentification, the need for additional resources, and the risk that existing limited resources may be spent on low risks, overlooking real threats,” it added.
The terrorist watchlist
The size of the terrorist watchlist grew to about 1.8 million names as of November 2022, an increase from 150,000 names in 2004, according to the committee. The list now contains approximately 2 million names,released last week, which found the list nearly doubled in size in just six years. U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents made up fewer than 7,000 of the names on the watchlist, Senate investigators wrote.
The government says there must be a “reasonable suspicion” to put a person on the watchlist, but authorities will neither confirm nor deny whether someone is on the list and won’t disclose what those suspicions are. According to the Senate report, the terrorist watchlist has expanded to include not only individuals who are known or suspected terrorists, but also those who are connected to those individuals.
U.S. travelers can be screened for at least 22 different reasons, only some of which are related to the inclusion in the terrorist watchlist, and those screenings can be redundant among agencies, the report said. The additional and repeated screenings have fueled concern that individuals are included on the watchlist, but the report said the system is “so opaque” and “the ability to learn whether someone has been included on it is so limited” that “individuals do not understand why their travel difficulties are happening.”
“Once matched to the terrorist watchlist, an individual’s only recourse is to appeal to the government for redress which … can be difficult and ineffective,” the report said.
The report added that “protecting Americans from the threat of terrorist attacks is paramount,” but “potential abuse and/or lack of meaningful redress for wrongful screening by our government risks eroding Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties.”
The committee called for a review of the watchlist enterprise and for the Department of Homeland Security to provide Congress with a plan to reform the redress process and provide more transparency about the screenings.
“As federal agencies continue to work diligently to protect our national security and keep travelers safe, it is crucial that we are doing so in an effective way that upholds our country’s civil liberties,” Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the committee’s chairman, said in a statement.
Erin Cauchi contributed reporting.
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