Dec 14, 2023 - Politics & Policy

About 2 million people now on U.S. terrorism watchlist: report

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. government's terrorism watchlist has grown to include approximately 2 million people in the two decades since its creation, a CBS Reports investigation found.

Why it matters: Thousands of people have complained about being treated like suspected terrorists after being incorrectly added to the list and having limited ability to get their names removed from it.

  • Lawsuits against the government have claimed that being on the watchlist has prevented people from flying or passing background checks for employment or being unfairly detained by U.S. and foreign law enforcement agencies, according to CBS.

How it works: After 9/11, the Terrorist Screening Center was created in 2003 to consolidate different terrorism watchlists across several government agencies.

  • The watchlist is used by the Department of State, Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration and other agencies to screen for potential terrorism suspects entering the U.S. or attempting to gain access to military installations. The government also shares information on the watchlist with its international partners.
  • Not all people on the list are considered terrorists but have been flagged as being "reasonably suspected" to be involved in terrorism or related activities, according to the FBI.
  • The personal information on the watchlist includes names, birthdates and fingerprints. No one can be added to the list based on race, ethnicity, religion or activities protected by the First Amendment, according to the FBI.

By the numbers: When the government watchlists were combined, there were initially about 120,000 people listed.

  • That number rose to 1.16 million by 2017. It now currently stands at approximately 2 million, according to the CBS Reports investigation.
  • While thousands of Americans are on the watchlist, the vast majority of people on it are non-U.S. citizens who have no known connection to the U.S.

Zoom in: National security officials told CBS that there are people on the list who should probably be removed but the center lacks enough staff and resources to regularly audit every person's file.

  • The FBI told CBS it revised the criteria by which people are added to the list by requiring more identifying information than it previously had.
  • Older entries on the watchlist that don't meet the new criteria will also be removed, per the CBS report.

The big picture: Civil liberties advocates have repeatedly warned about its expansion. However, the constitutionality of the list has been challenged and upheld several times throughout the years.

  • The FBI has said in recent years that it believes both foreign and domestic terrorism are on the rise.
  • The Department of Homeland Security said in October that it was monitoring a "heightened threat environment" in the U.S. because of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.

Go deeper: FBI issues public safety warning for the holidays related to Israel-Hamas war

Go deeper