U.S. terror watchlists are too broad and may violate travelers’ rights, Senate report says

A new report released on Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found the nation’s watchlists for identifying and tracking travelers who may have connections to terrorists are overly broad and can lead to “unwarranted screening” and “spread national security resources” too broadly. 

The report found travelers entering or traveling within the United States may be screened for at least 22 different reasons and that these processes may violate civil liberties.

“While protecting Americans from the threat of terrorist attacks is paramount, potential abuse and/or lack of meaningful redress for wrongful screenings by our government risks eroding Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties,” the report said.

The committee’s Democratic majority is now calling for the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant government agencies to do a full review of their records, provide more transparency on how someone ends up on the watchlists, and give travelers a path to redress if they feel they have been unfairly placed on the lists. 

The report comes as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency under the executive branch of the government, is reviewing standards to add and remove names from terror watchlists. The three main lists are the Terror Screening Dataset, known as the TSDS or “terror watchlist,” the No Fly List that prohibits some people who may be a national security threat from boarding airplanes in and to the U.S., and the Expanded Selectee List, a separate roster of passengers requiring extra screening before boarding a plane. 

The TSDS, created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, has grown from 120,000 names at its creation in 2003 to almost 2 million 20 years later, the report said.

Federal officials have said that not everyone on the TSDS is a known or convicted terrorist but could be related to a known terrorist or someone who may have been associated with, communicated with or paid money to a foreign terrorist group in the past.

“It is really important to look at the use of (national security) resources and make sure we are using our resources effectively,” said a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee aide. 

Another aide noted that there are people on the terror watchlist who do not meet the standard for “reasonable suspicion.” 

Terrorists ‘pouring’ over the border

The terror watchlist is used both to prevent passengers from boarding planes, and to screen individuals trying to cross into the U.S. by land.

In 2023, there has been an uptick in people on the TSDS crossing the southern border, according to a Homeland Threat Assessment released by DHS in September.

A DHS official said it was not true, however, that Hamas terrorists were “pouring” over the southern U.S. border, as former President Donald Trump and other Republicans charged said after the Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel by Hamas. According to the official, there has been no uptick in the number of people who might be associated with Hamas crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.

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