A recent investigation by CBS Reports has unveiled a substantial growth in the U.S. government’s terrorist watchlist, with the number of individuals on it nearly doubling in just six years.
The Terrorist Screening Dataset, formerly initiated in 2003, has expanded from 120,000 to approximately 2 million people by the end of 2023, including thousands of Americans, according to CBS Reports.
The investigation, which involved scrutinizing court records, government documents, and interviews with intelligence community leaders, revealed that not only has the size of the watchlist expanded, but so has its scope in terms of the targeted individuals.
Russ Travers, a veteran of the U.S. intelligence community, emphasized that inclusion on the list does not automatically designate someone as a terrorist but indicates a need for further examination.
While government policy mandates “reasonable suspicion” for inclusion on the watchlist, the criteria for such suspicion remain undisclosed. Moreover, officials neither confirm nor deny an individual’s presence on the list, leading to concerns about transparency and accountability.
Monte Hawkins, overseeing watchlisting policy for President Biden, highlighted that a majority of those listed are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
Acknowledging that some individuals may need removal, national security officials cited insufficient staff to regularly audit each person’s file. The watchlist’s oversight group also manages a second list targeting American gangs with international ties, further adding 40,000 individuals to the Transnational Organized Crime Actor Detection Program.
Being on the watchlist can significantly impact lives, leading to travel restrictions, employment challenges, and encounters with law enforcement. Civil lawsuits over the past two decades have seen numerous complaints of innocent people treated as terrorist suspects, with the Department of Homeland Security reporting that 98% of complaints were “false positives.”
In response to concerns, the FBI stated it has revised criteria for adding individuals to the database, requiring more identifying information. The agency is also prioritizing the collection of biometrics to reduce cases of mistaken identity. However, civil liberties advocates and former counterterrorism insiders express apprehension over the watchlist’s expansion, citing government abuses and a lack of accountability.
As the U.S. faces rising threats of both foreign and domestic terrorism, the watchlist remains a crucial component of the government’s “early warning system,” according to national security assessments for 2023 and 2024. The Biden administration acknowledges concerns and pledges ongoing efforts to address issues related to transparency, redress processes, and potential reforms, although specific timelines remain undisclosed.