The Terrorist Watchlist: One Watchlist Among a Collection of Databases and Watchlists

Timothy Healy, the Director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, has a telling comment at the end of Charlie Savage’s story on documents revealing new details about the terrorist watch list.

But Mr. Healy said the government could not reveal who was on the list, or why, because that would risk revealing intelligence sources. He also defended the idea of the watch list, saying the government would be blamed if, after a terrorist attack, it turned out the perpetrator had attracted the suspicions of one agency but it had not warned other agencies to scrutinize the person.

Mr. Healy also suggested that fears of the watch list were exaggerated, in part because there are many other reasons that people are subjected to extra screening at airports. He said more than 200,000 people have complained to the Department of Homeland Security about their belief that they were wrongly on the list, but fewer than 1 percent of them were actually on it.

It’s a neat boast–that just 1 percent of the people who have reason to believe the government has them in a big database turn out to be in the database (the terrorist watch list, formally the Terrorist Screening Database or TSDB) at issue.

But given that the documents reveal an interlocking set of multiple databases, that ought to be little comfort. The Known and Suspected Terrorist list was, somewhat disturbingly, actually the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File until August 2009 (see PDF 17), suggesting that the Bush Administration kept all scary brown people together in one database, but also making clear that there is now a Gang File that is very similar to the KST file. The TSDB is separate from the No Fly and Selectee lists; hypothetically the latter two lists are a subset of the former (people from the TSDB have to be submitted and approved to be put on the TSA lists), but it is not absolutely clear that is the case for the less stringent Selectee list (PDF 100 makes it clear the No Fly list is). There are the Consular Lookout and Support System and the Interagency Border Inspection System; while inclusion in the TSDB should automatically include someone in these databases, it is not clear that these databases only include those in the TSDB (PDF 55 and 59 suggest they were in 2004, though it’s not clear that that is still the case). The Terrorist Screening Center also provides access to other databases–the Automated Case Support System, the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force database, and TSA’s Office of Transportation Threat Assessment database (PDF 26), all of which are distinct from the KST, and PDF 59 seems to make clear that the latter TSA list is not included in the TSDB. PDF 89 makes it clear there are other Department of Homeland Security and DOJ terrorist watch lists that are not the same as the TSDB. There is a Customs and Border Patrol database that includes additional information (see PDF 95) that will not be included in the TSDB.

In short, when Healy says there are many other reasons why people are subject to screening at airports, he is not saying that people aren’t in a database somewhere, only that they are not in his database.

Then there’s the possibility of a false positive–of someone being stopped because he had the same name as someone in the TSDB. The documents describe how to put someone in the database with just a name and approximate age, and there at least used to be a Handling Code dedicated to people with limited biographical data (see PDF 45). And Healy himself admitted (PDF 101) that 60-70% of the people reported to the Terrorist Screening Center, some via stops and some via other bureaucratic means, are not positive matches to the list, which says some people are being stopped for no reason. Further, PDF 103 makes it clear that almost half the people who complain about being on the watchlists (that less than 1 percent Healy referred to) were either a false positive or were not appropriately on the watchlist.

So sure. The TSDB isn’t necessarily the reason everyone is being stopped. But that doesn’t mean the country’s vast array of databases and watchlists are working properly.

7 replies
  1. William Ockham says:

    There are a couple of reasons that the 1% stat given is highly misleading even though it is probably true. The question to ask is how many of those people who thought they were on it have a name that is a phonetic match (just Google “soundex”) for a name on the list. I’m willing to wager that the answer to my question is in the neighborhood of 90%.

    When I traveled overseas this summer, I encountered an issue with the no-fly list that demonstrates why there are so many people who get caught up this mess. Due to an error by a travel agent, the name entered for my airline reservation didn’t match the name on my passport (which, in case anyone doesn’t know, is not William Ockham). The same was true for my entire family (due to the same mistake). However, because the name on my reservation matched a name on the watch list, I was singled out for “special treatment”. Obviously, since I’ve never been given the business flying under my actual name (which is unique, i.e I am fairly sure that there is no one else in the entire world with my real name), I’m assuming there is someone on the watch list with the name that was listed on the reservation. There are literally thousands of people in the U.S. with that name and roughly my age. They can’t all be terrorists or gang members. But I’m sure one of them is. And every single one of them probably gets harrassed at the airport.

  2. MadDog says:

    Four years ago (PDF 91), Healy reported that there were 906,200 “records” in the TSDB (by records, I think we can infer “individuals”).

    Senator Akaka on the same page (PDF 91) indicated that the growth in the number of “records” was approximately 20,000 per month.

    This would mean that it is likely that from October 2007 until October 2011, approximately an addtional 960,000 “records” were added to the TSDB. In effect, this would be doubling the number of “records” reported in October 2007 to over 1.8 million.

    Only about 12% of the October 2007 906,200 records were supplied by the FBI, and the other 88% were supplied by “Other Government Agencies”. Noteworthy about this 88% is that we have no clue as to what standards (or not) these “Other Government Agencies” use to put individuals into the TSDB.

    If we continue to use the same percentage of inclusion by “Other Government Agencies” as was the case in October 2007, that would mean that by October 2011 over 1.6 million individuals were included in the TSDB by these “Other Government Agencies”.

  3. MadDog says:

    @William Ockham: Taking your Google example one step further, I wonder if the screening name entry process works like typing something into Google.

    By that I mean, as soon as you start typing a single letter, Google starts returning “possible matches”. For example, if you type the letters OS, one of the possible matches Google instantly returns is Osama Bin Laden.

    If your name is Osborne, before the screener gets to type the “b”, he/she has an accelerating heartbeat because he/she might have just stumbled onto Osama Bin Laden’s junket to Lost Wages.

  4. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Good question! Given the date of the split (August 2009), the 2007 figures had to include both.

    But since the FBI was only responsible for inclusion of 12% (110,200) as of October 2007, and “OGAs” responsible for 88% (796,000), I’d guess the Gang component as relatively modest of the sum total.

    I’m not quite sure who other than the FBI would be entering the Gang component. Perhaps parts of DHS like ICE and Customs, but beyond those, I don’t know.

    Just my swag, but it would still seem likely that the majority would be non-US persons.

  5. Kim Hanson says:

    Thats still 2000 people complaining about being wrongly on his one little list that he has now verified that are indeed on his list.

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