Prev NEXT  


How to Land on the Government Watch List

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.
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.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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].

To find out more about the U.S. Government's Consolidated Terrorist Watch List, check out the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • 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)