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U.S. watchlists for tracking travelers with possible terror ties risk violating rights and are too broad, Senate report says

Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security Committee want more transparency on how people end up on the lists, which include the "terror watchlist" and the No Fly List.
 LAX runway, airliner landing
An airliner lands at Los Angeles International Airport.David McNew / Getty Images file

A new report released on Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee found the nation’s watchlists for identifying and tracking travelers who may have connections to terrorists are overly broad and can lead to “unwarranted screening” and “spread national security resources” too broadly. 

The report found travelers entering or traveling within the United States may be screened for at least 22 different reasons and that these processes may violate civil liberties.

“While protecting Americans from the threat of terrorist attacks is paramount, potential abuse and/or lack of meaningful redress for wrongful screenings by our government risks eroding Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties,” the report said.

The Democratic majority on the committee, which is chaired by Gary Peters of Michigan, is now calling for the Department of Homeland Security and other relevant government agencies to do a full review of their records, provide more transparency on how someone ends up on the watchlists, and give travelers a path to redress if they feel they have been unfairly placed on the lists. 

The report comes as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency under the executive branch of the government, is reviewing standards to add and remove names from terror watchlists. The three main lists are the Terror Screening Dataset, known as the TSDS or “terror watchlist,” the No Fly List that prohibits some people who may be a national security threat from boarding airplanes in and to the U.S., and the Expanded Selectee List, a separate roster of passengers requiring extra screening before boarding a plane. 

The TSDS, created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, has grown from 120,000 names at its creation in 2003 to almost 2 million 20 years later, the report said.

Federal officials have said that not everyone on the TSDS is a known or convicted terrorist but could be related to a known terrorist or someone who may have been associated with, communicated with or paid money to a foreign terrorist group in the past.

Committee staff who briefed NBC News on the report said overly broad lists risk misusing and overstretching national security resources. They noted there are people on the terror watchlist who do not meet the standard for “reasonable suspicion.” 

In a statement, a DHS spokesperson said, "We agree with the Committee that civil rights and liberties must be at the forefront of our policies, programs, activities and work to safeguard the nation. DHS has implemented systems to ensure those priorities are at the center of our efforts, and we are constantly working to make further improvements. While we believe some of the committee’s findings lack important context, DHS is committed to working with Congress and stakeholders to ensure we have all the tools and capabilities to protect our national security while simultaneously protecting civil rights and liberties.”

Terrorists ‘pouring’ over the border

The terror watchlist is used both to prevent passengers from boarding planes, and to screen individuals trying to cross into the U.S. by land.

In 2023, there has been an uptick in people on the TSDS crossing the southern border, according to a Homeland Threat Assessment released by DHS in September.

A DHS official said it was not true, however, that Hamas terrorists were “pouring” over the southern U.S. border, as former President Donald Trump and other Republicans charged said after the Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel by Hamas. According to the official, there has been no uptick in the number of people who might be associated with Hamas crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.