Getting put on the watch list isn't exactly like making prom queen, but it does require a nomination. An agent from the FBI, NSA or other federal agency nominates you. Then, that nomination moves on to the FBI's Terrorist Review and Examination Unit. If you check out as a known or potential terrorist, it's on to the Terrorist Screening Center and the watch list.
What exactly does it mean to be "appropriately suspected [source: The White House]" as a potential terrorist? The FBI and the federal government remain tightlipped about specific qualifications, continually referring back to the generic guidelines established in the Presidential Directive.
Besides having a criminal record for terrorist-related activities or known associations with terrorists or terrorist organizations, there are other ways people get pegged for the list. Active membership in some extremist groups could get you a spot. For instance, the eco-extreme group Earth Liberation Front has been the focus of FBI investigations for the property damage members have caused. The FBI calls this group's activity "special interest terrorism" [source: FBI]. But if you're concerned that reading HowStuffWorks article How easy is it to steal a nuclear bomb will set off the fed's alarm systems, don't worry. Unless you actually attempt to steal a nuclear bomb yourself, you're probably fine.
So what about all those average Joes who have been stopped and searched by government officials? Are they terrorists in sheep's clothing?
More likely, they have the misfortune of sharing the same name as someone on the terrorist watch list. If your name matches a name on the list, you'll probably be flagged for things regulated by the federal government, such as air travel, border crossings and even getting a speeding ticket. From December 2003 to May 2007, 53,000 people were stopped because their names matched ones on the list [source: Larence]. However most of those people were questioned and released because there was a lack of evidence that person was a terrorist [source: Larence].
To see what can happen when you're on -- or mistaken for someone on -- the list and learn how to get off of it, go on to the next page.