How to Land on the Government Watch List

The FBI Terrorist Screening Center maintains the U.S. government's watch list.
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Just like Santa Claus, the U.S. government has its own version of "the naughty list." But this one doesn't record boys and girls who fibbed or acted mean to schoolmates on the playground. Instead, the U.S. Government 's Consolidated Terrorist Watch List keeps track of people who are known or suspected terrorists. These are the people the U.S. government doesn't want to board planes, enter the country or obtain a visa without a lot of hassle.

While the government makes no secret of the list's existence, its official contents are off-limits to the public. That's because the federal government believes if terrorists are aware of being on a watch list, they will become more vigilant and tricky in committing heinous crimes.


Before the Sept. 11 attacks, more than a dozen watch lists were floating around different federal agencies [source: U.S. Department of Justice]. Now, those records have been consolidated into one master list maintained by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC).

The development of TSC and the master list grew out of the Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6 signed by President Bush in 2003. The directive outlined the federal government's plan to combine all former watch lists into one master list of people "known or appropriately suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism [source: The White House]."

The number of people fitting that bill has ballooned, from 325,000 reported in 2006 to around 755,000 names of people at home and abroad as of May 2007 [source: Larence]. That figure includes aliases and different spellings of the same name. Although the federal government won't reveal the precise statistics, officials have reported that U.S. citizens only make up a minority of the list [source: Pincus and Eggern].

So what exactly do you have to do to land on this list? Are these convicts, average folks or truly frightening people with a penchant for bombs? Read on to find out what will get you on -- and off -- the government watch list.


Getting on a Government Watch List

International airline passengers at Dulles International Airport must have their fingerprints scanned and checked against the terrorist watch list.
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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.


Getting off a Government Watch List

People on the watch list or with the same name as someone on the list will likely be stopped for extra security screening at airports.
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If you are on the terror watch list, somewhere in Northern Virginia, someone in the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) is looking at you on a screen [source: Temple-Raston]. Not a real-time image of you, but rather a colored dot showing your location.

But how can you know whether you're on the watch list if the government doesn't disclose that information? Will you know when men in trench coats and shades follow your every move?


The easiest way to find out is to take an airplane trip. It doesn't matter the destination, just try booking a flight and see what happens. The Transportation Security Administration that oversees air travel in the United States will automatically flag anyone with a name on the TSC's master list. As a result, when you arrive at the airport, someone will likely pull you aside for an extensive security check and possibly questioning before permitting you to board.

Being repeatedly stopped at an airport could also signal that you share the same name as someone on the watch list. This screening feature has botched many travel plans for regular citizens. Consider the example in 2004 when someone named John Lewis made the government watch list. After that, every John Lewis, including the well-known civil rights activist and Georgia representative of the same name, had trouble boarding a flight [source: Goo].

Another alternative is to check the public list of Specifically Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons that the U.S. Treasury publishes. These people are prevented from doing any financial business in the United States, including opening bank accounts or obtaining loans. Although this is a different list from the master that the TSC maintains, if your name matches one on that list, you'll probably want to have it removed.

If you're sure that you aren't a terrorist and don't have any intentions of becoming one, there is a redress process that can get you downgraded or removed from the watch list. Just contact the relevant federal agency and file a redress complaint. For example, if you're having trouble at the airport, contact the Transportation Security Administration and complete the paperwork for their Department of Homeland Security redress program.

Then, the information will be passed along to the TSC's Redress Unit that evaluates any necessary changes. From January 2005 to February 2007, 35 percent of people who complained were kept on the list, while 45 percent were either granted a lowered security level or removal from the list [source: U.S. Department of Justice]. To get through the process, you'll also need some patience because the average wait time for resolving a complaint is 67 days [source: U.S. Department of Justice].

With so many people being identified as possible terrorists, it may seem nearly impossible for a watch-listed person to slip through government screening. However, an audit by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 found that 20 people who were on the watch list were not properly identified and detained when they should have been [source: U.S. Department of Justice].


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
  • Goo, Sara Kehaulani. "Hundreds Report Watch-List Trials." The Washington Post. August 24, 2004. (March 5, 2008)
  • Larence, Eileen R. "Terrorist Watch List Screening." Testimony Before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate. Oct. 24, 2007. (March 5, 2008)
  • Lichtblau, Eric. "Papers Show Confusion as Government Watch List Grew Quickly." The New York Times. Oct. 9, 2004. (March 5, 2008)
  • NOW. "Are you on a watch list?" Public Broadcasting Stations. March 3, 2006. (March 5, 2008)
  • Pincus, Walter and Eggen, Dan. "325,000 Names on Terrorism List." The Washington Post. Feb. 15, 2006. (March 5, 2008)
  • Singel, Ryan. "How to Get Off a Government Watch List." Wired Magazine. April 16, 2007. (March 5, 2008)
  • Singel, Ryan. "Nun Terrorized by Watch List." Wired Magazine. Sept. 26, 2005. (March 10, 2008)
  • Swarns, Rachell L. "Senator? Terrorist? A Watch List Stops Kennedy at the Airport." The New York Times. Aug. 20, 2004. (March 10, 2008)
  • Temple-Raston, Dina. "Inside the Terrorist Screening Center." National Public Radio. Aug. 30, 2007. (March 6, 2008)
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "Follow Up Audit of the Terrorist Screening Center." Office of the Inspector General. Sept. 2007. (March 5, 2008)
  • U.S. Treasury Department. "Specifically Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons." Office of Foreign Assets Control. Updated March 4, 2008. (March 6, 2008)