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Despite Extensive Review, Unsuspecting Travelers Still End Up on Watch Lists


How do passengers end up on watch lists? While the criteria are unclear, the intense vetting process is designed to assure accuracy, but mistakes still happen.

Stories of passengers finding themselves on watch lists and heightened security screening situations have grabbed the headlines since the TSA took over passenger screening from the airlines in 2004. Celebrities, congressional leaders, dead presidents and ordinary, everyday travelers have experienced the frustration and embarrassment of being detained or denied access to their flights. In September, Fox News journalist Stephen Hayes found himself on a terrorist watch list and was forced to go through additional screening procedures on his way home from vacation overseas.

Today, the national Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) is the responsibility of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), headed by Christopher M. Piehota. While the FBI did not return requests from FlyerTalk to comment on this story, Piehota appeared before the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on Transportation Security in September. During his appearance, Piehota outlined the different watch lists and how “nominations” are included in the database.

For clarification, Piehota referenced the TSDB, No-Fly List and Selectee List, which recommends individuals for additional screening. The latter two lists require meeting additional criteria above and beyond the “reasonable suspicion” required for the TSDB, according to Piehota.

The TSC receives nominations from the law enforcement, homeland security and intelligence communities, who then go through an extensive vetting process and must meet several layers of verification criteria, Piehota explained to the committee. He did not elaborate on what criteria are involved.

“The nomination process is the most fundamental and singularly important step in the watchlisting process,” Piehota stated. “Nominations originate from credible information developed by our intelligence and law enforcement partners.”

Generally, nominations must satisfy two requirements. First, facts and circumstances pertaining to the nomination must meet the “reasonable suspicion” standard of review. Second, the biographic information associated with a nomination must contain data distinguishing a person being screened from another watch list individual, such as people with the same name.

Piehota explained that “reasonable suspicion” means that facts are paired with “rational inferences,” based on the circumstances as a whole. “Mere guesses or ‘hunches’ are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion,” he said. Race, religion and nationality also cannot be considered.

The TSC then reviews the nominations and determines whether the individual should also be placed on the No-Fly or Selectee Lists.

The TSDB data is extracted and sent to the appropriate agencies, such as the TSA. Even after all of this vetting and verifying, however, people are still finding themselves on one or more lists without cause or justification.

A revealing report aired on 60 Minutes in October 2006 highlighted the challenges of maintaining the accuracy of a No-Fly List. Reporter Steve Kroft noted then that there were 540 pages of over 44,000 names on the No-Fly List. Before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Kroft said, the number of suspected terrorists was 16. “And that doesn’t include people the government thinks should be pulled aside for additional security screening,” Kroft stated in his report. “There are another 75,000 on that list.”

Watch lists and random security procedures should not be confused, a TSA official told FlyerTalk when asked about the distinctions between the lists. The official noted that the TSA regularly informs passengers that additional or random screening may occur. These screenings do no mean the passenger is on a watch list.

Travelers who are denied or delayed privileges, whether they’re boarding or trying to enter the U.S., can submit an inquiry through the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.

When the TSC is advised directly, either through the media or from congressional inquiries, about individuals who have encountered travel difficulties due their watch list status, the TSC Redress Unit reviews the pertinent watch list records to see if there is information that can be determined to reduce any future misidentifications, Piehota explained.

Several lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the No-Fly List have been filed or decided. Piehota said the TSC is evaluating redress procedures to ensure they do not violate the public’s rights.

“The TSC has a standing commitment to protect the U.S. and its international partners from terrorist threats while protecting privacy and safeguarding civil liberties,” Piehota stated. “Terrorist Watchlisting has been a vital early warning and interdiction tool in the counterterrorism efforts of the U.S. government and will continue to serve in this capacity in the future.”

[Photo: iStock]

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