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Letter to the Editor Regarding the Terrorist Watch List

Washington, D.C. July 01, 2009
  • FBI National Press Office (202) 324-3691

(A version of this letter appeared in the Fredericksburg, Virginia Free Lance-Star on June 30, 2009)

Your recent editorial (“List full of holes,” June 25, 2009) included a number of inaccurate statements—and critical omissions—about the U.S. government’s consolidated terrorist watch list.

Neither the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) nor the Department of Justice has ever stated that the terrorist watch list contains more than 1 million names. Instead, the Department of Justice explained in its recent report, as has the Terrorist Screening Center numerous times before, that the terrorist watch list contains 1.1 million “terrorist identities” representing approximately 400,000 individuals. This is because a single individual can generate numerous “terrorist identities” or records. For example, if a suspected terrorist uses two different names and three fake dates of birth, TSC would generate six “terrorist identities” or records.

The editorial also failed to include the widely-reported fact that less than 5 percent of the individuals on the watch list are U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents. The vast majority are not even in the U.S.—and the watch list was established to help keep it that way.

No one is watch-listed based on religion or ethnicity. Individuals are only watch-listed based on a reasonable suspicion to believe they are engaging in terrorism or terrorist activities.

Contrary to what the editorial stated, no one has ever been found to be on the watch list because of “mistaken identity.” Some individuals may encounter delays during screening because their name is similar to that of a watch listed individual. But, those encounters can almost always be quickly resolved through the use of additional indentifying information that clarifies whether or not an individual is on the watch list or just an innocent person with a similar name.

The editorial also omitted a critical finding the Government Accountability Office made about the watch list. This independent Congressional investigative agency found that “[t]he watch list has enhanced the U.S. government’s counterterrorism efforts.” In short, the watch list has made America safer.

Security measures deserve public scrutiny, but your readers deserve an accurate presentation of the facts involved.

Timothy J. Healy
Director
U.S. Terrorist Screening Center