When Everyone’s A Suspect: The Paradox Of Two Million People On U.S. Terror Watchlists

Approximately 2 million people are on terror watch lists that the government uses to screen airline passengers. But when everyone’s a suspect, nobody is, and that’s a problem.

We know that, in agency tests, TSA screeners frequently miss most of potentially dangerous items being brought through the checkpoint. When was the last time you were in a PreCheck line and had liquids pulled aside because they weren’t in a baggie?

So the foundation of airport security is name verification. However government watchlists that those names are being checked against have grown too large, with too much bad data to be useful.

Most of those people shouldn’t be on the list, but the lists aren’t really audited and the government doesn’t confirm to people that they are on it and citizens lack a means to challenge their inclusion.

ID Requirements Are Actually Lax

ID requirements to fly began as a ‘do something’ policy after the explosion of TWA flight 800. President Clinton demanded to be able to immediately announce new airline security measures, and told his National Security Council team to come up with some.

In 2005 Congress voted to require ‘REAL ID’ standards but they keep getting pushed back, most recently in 2021 to past the 2024 Presidential election because no one wants to be responsible for people being hassled at the airport right before voting.

Matching your name to the list of people flying on an aircraft ultimately is supposed to matter so that the government can check you against their various watch lists from lists requiring extra security screening to no fly lists.

But the government lists are junk, and the identification process is junk.

People Fly Without ID Every Day

When it came out that a handful of people failed to have their ID properly verified by CLEAR over the past few years, there was a scandal and TSA considered requiring every CLEAR passenger to show ID at the checkpoint even though people go through checkpoints without firm ID checks all the time.

  • People show ID that may not look like them, but matches their ticket
  • It may not properly scan, where TSA is validating IDs electronically
  • With a couple million passengers daily, any system will have outliers

And about 2,000 people fly each day without ID. Around 700,000 people per year fly without showing valid ID.

  • If you don’t have an ID they accept at the checkpoint, you can show two forms of ‘unacceptable’ ID

  • If you don’t have any ID, they will ask you challenge questions to establish your identity. They put in a call to their ID Verification Center and ask you the sort of questions that a bank might ask when you set up an account, such as places you’ve lived in the past.

How Watch Lists Work

The US government maintains targeting lists and airlines are required to check passengers against it before allowing them to fly. They maintain other lists that trigger increased security screening and potentially harassment.

The lists are pre-crime profiling. Not even based on science. And it’s also done very very poorly. People get on the list by mistake, because they’re related to someone who is on it (or just have a similar name), or because they visited the wrong country in the wrong year. .

These are secret lists that people haven’t been entitled to know they are on, how they got on, or to confront the evidence relied upon to put them on it. Legally there is very little recourse, and when challenged the government claims ‘state secrets.’

What we actually need are robust due process protections for inclusion on government lists of US citizens. People wind up on the list arbitrarily, by mistake, and without real evidence.

The ‘No Fly List’ works like this:

  • Formal responsibility for the list rests with the TSA and under 49 U.S.C. § 46110 inclusion is only reviewable by circuit courts in which judges are required to defer to the TSA’s judgment about all alleged facts and are permitted only to review the administrative record created by and provided to them by the TSA itself.

  • Until 2015 the TSA wouldn’t even tell people whether they were on the list (making it difficult to sue to get off the list when you can’t prove you’re on it). The TSA does not tell people why they are on the list.

  • Decisions to put someone on the no fly list are based on predictive pre-crime profiling rather than actual evidence about the individual’s actions or intentions. This is a huge leap in our justice system.

These Lists Aren’t Secure

Targeting lists aren’t only used by the government, and they’re not secure. In fact the U.S. distributes the list to over 1400 private organizations and shares it with other governments. It’s used for purposes beyond national security.

It appears that federal government lawyers have perjured themselves claiming that the list was not shared. It’s even given to “police forces at private universities, hospital security staff” and it’s not clear what, if any, restrictions there are on how the information is used. Meanwhile the government “adds hundreds of thousands of names to the list every year.”

There are now nearly two million names on terrorism watch lists and the entire list was leaked online via a Bahrain server.

Airport Security Is Security Theater

The TSA itself filed documents in court saying that a decade after 9/11 they did not know of any actual plots against civilian airliners.

Hardening checkpoints though just shifts risk. If airport security were working and there were active threats, we’d have seen attacks against high profile targets that are less secure. If positive name matching against government terror lists was key to security, then why hasn’t the Eras Tour been disrupted?

TSA has often failed to catch over 90% of contraband going through checkpoints, there have been tens of thousands of misconduct complaints against the agency’s staff, and yet we haven’t seen repeats in the U.S. of 9/11 largely because there aren’t as many threats as we think, they’re harder to carry out than we imagine, and because we’ve reinforced cockpit doors and passengers would no longer sit docilely by as an attack was carried out.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Makes so much sense with wide open borders (Canada and Mexico) for millions of people flowing thru without documents or detention.
    Ot the 100s of thousands of invaders from Syria; Iraq; Afghanistan that the Obama-Biden regimes have flown in without any (cough cough) terror lists.

    Maybe the tens of thousands being flown on chartered red-eye flights without IDs that keep them flowing and disappearing into the US without TSA screening.

    @jns- As long as UA continues to allow FAs to wear BLM pins, that pilot is still on payroll,

  2. jns,

    No, he is not on the passenger no-fly list. And there is probably no solid basis on which to add him to the US Government’s no-fly list.

    The US no-fly list consists overwhelmingly of names that are often perceived to be affiliated with Muslim backgrounds or of Russian or other Eastern Orthodox Slavic backgrounds. Thus people with such names are more likely to be wrongly flagged than the average European-American of non-Irish background also due to misidentification and poorly collected and loaded “identifying” information.

    Personally, I think there should be no no-fly list applicable for otherwise free persons to fly as passengers from US airports.

    Does the no-fly list even apply to small private plane flights that aren’t part of commercial operations?

  3. Jns,

    Word is that the American pilot for UA is also not on the haraSSSSment-triggering watchlist.

  4. Having worked with utterly defective and useless federal lists of names in an article that I wrote, I agree this is a joke. How many “Mohammeds” or “Smiths” are there in the world? How easy is it to get them mixed up? Anyway, it is an admission of failure. If the TSA was truly effective then there would be no need for watch lists either, since it wouldn’t matter who got on board. After all, everyone had been been thoroughly screened beforehand. But such things will continue so long as people accept the foundations of what is effectively a Soviet-style internal passport system to watch and control movement by Americans within their own country,

    Look, the systems are not effective, and logical people might conclude that they should be rethought or scrapped. But those whose careers, perhaps even their mental well being, are invested in power and control will simply double down on what they are doing. The old rule about being in a hole is to stop digging. That is not the bureaucrat’s way.

  5. 2 million is not “everyone”, it’s less than 1% of the US population, and considering this list is global, it’s less than 0.03% of the world population.

    If you all have a problem with so many Muslims on the no fly list, tell them to maybe not be terrorists at a rate infinitely higher than people of other religions. They have earned their reputation. But blah blah blah, not every Muslim is a terrorist and not every terrorist is a Muslim? Nobody said it was an absolute. But if Muslims are more likely to be terrorists (they are), then more Muslims will show up on the list. It’s not hard to figure out.

  6. 2 million on the list doesn’t mean only 2 million people are subject to being hit by it. A lot of people hit by blacklists are hit because of misinformation and misidentification driven by the sloppiness, incompleteness and interpretive way the blacklists are used even when the persons hit by the blacklist really were not the persons selected by the government to be put on the blacklists.

    Collective punishment is not the objective of the US no-fly list. Most Muslim passengers in the US have not been hit by the US no-fly list, but most people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds hit by the no-fly lists at US airports seem to have been hit when they shouldn’t have been — think Indian-American women flagged down because of dead Central Asian males on the blacklist and infants flagged down on the blacklist because of 70+ year old Irish guys on the list.

  7. 1. People who really care can take Amtrak.
    2. Weird paradox between passengers who cram their life’s belongings into a carryon bag (and their pet zoo) and avoid the baggage carousel time and money, and passengers such as I who have to pay time and money to check bags containing health and beauty liquids and Grandmother’s special homemade jams.
    3. Also weird contrast between overseas security and US security procedures.
    4. This past year’s short-lived but annoying and illogical procedure of CLEAR requiring government issued picture ID for TSA.
    5. Yes, TSA is forced kabaki theatre for flying passengers, and hopefully some genius bureaucrat can come up with a better idea.

  8. TSA is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s working at 100% efficiency.

    Let me explain, the TSA was never about safety.

    They hire rude, poorly trained, indignant people on purpose.

    Safety? LOL

    The TSA is to remind you the govt can do whatever it wants to you and puts generations of people through a conditioning program to feel like the are powerless and their rights are granted to them by the govt rather than the other way around.

    How is this not obvious?

    You made the case yourself when you pointed out the supposed “failures” but we can see a la San Francisco anytime the govt actually wants to clean something up, it totally can

    When you walk into an airport you basically are giving up any rights you think you have to be pushed around by thugs and losers (but I repeat myself) with zero recourse.

    They’re so stupid they don’t even know their purpose, they THINK they are there for security and the lack of accountability means their naturally disgusting habits manifest themselves.

    It’s a psyop in pain view

  9. So what, the government should dismantle the TSA and its checkpoints and allow anyone to fly without screening?

    Obviously not.

    What a useless article.

  10. Passenger flights can be secured by screening passengers for restricted weapons, explosives and incendiaries even without TSA screeners at airports. And it can be done without government involvement in passenger identification for flights.

    Scrapping the “passenger identification is security” nonsense at US airport screening checkpoints, going back to letting airlines and airports hire their own security screeners at US airports, and defaulting to giving all passengers PreCheck type screening at the airport screening checkpoints would work better than what we have since we got the “federalize to professionalize” Frankenstein dog and pony show.

  11. There are A LOT of people out there that are ready and willing to put you down if you even hint that the No Fly List is flawed or if you complain that there is no ‘due process’. “Due Process is for innocent people and if you are innocent, you would not be on the list.”

    The TSA, and for that matter the US Gov, does not like to be criticised. Mr. Leff, good luck getting off the No Fly List.

  12. “It’s a psyop in pain view” Freudian slip.

    “Airport Security Is Security Theater”

    Gary is 100% correct. It was a joke when it started and remains that way today.

  13. “So what, the government should dismantle the TSA and its checkpoints and allow anyone to fly without screening?”

    The classic “strawman”. One of the more popular fallacious arguments.

  14. @James N, what should happen is that TSA should be abruptly dismantled because the experiment of taking a lot of rent-a-cop groups and turning them into a Federal group has failed. A interim group is needed to cover the approximate 60,000 people so maybe the military or national guard could be used while a new agency is hired, properly trained and staffed.

  15. We don’t need a new government agency to screen passengers at US airports. We can just migrate over to letting airports and airlines once again hire their own contractors or employees to do the screening. A transition to staff up for contract screeners would require some planning and phasing in the changes but where there is a will there is a way to do this.

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