Setting the Record Straight on Terror Watch Lists

Pajamas Media recently posted a story in which CNN reporter Drew Griffin claimed that he was put on a TSA watch list as retaliation for a story he did on TSA. A lot of readers found it credible, judging by the comments. That's unfortunate, since the story is quite simply false.

Let's start with the notion that TSA can just put people on the watch list on a whim. In fact, responsibility for the watch list rests with the Terrorist Screening Center, an interagency operation managed by the FBI. The nomination process has been outlined in public testimony a few times: there are three rigorous levels of review before a name ends up on the watch list -- within the agency nominating, at the National Counter Terrorism Center, and then finally at the Terrorist Screening Center. An extremely small percentage of the watch list is used by TSA and the airlines for aviation security -- TSA doesn't add anyone on its own. (For the record, the no-fly and selectee lists combined do not exceed 50,000 individuals, and the consolidated list is smaller than 400,000 individuals.) TSA can nominate individuals to the terrorist watch list through that same three-level process, but it is extremely rare. TSA would have to meet the same criteria for nomination that other agencies do and it has to be reviewed by DHS and so on. Investigative journalism is not among the criteria.

Second, I've checked with TSA. They say categorically that CNN reporter Drew Griffin is not on the watch list. Not now, not then, not ever.

So why does Griffin think he's being retaliated against? I can think of a couple of possibilities. First, TSA protocols require that some passengers be put through secondary screening on a random basis. If the passenger is prone to paranoia, of course, nothing looks random; screening is treated as confirmation that there really is a government conspiracy against the passenger.

The other possibility is that a terrorism suspect with a name like Drew Griffin ended up on the watch list, and the airlines can't tell Drew Griffin the suspect from Drew Griffin the CNN reporter. I should begin by acknowledging that I can't confirm the presence of a name like Drew Griffin on the list; for obvious reasons, the government doesn't announce what names are on the list. But I can say that Griffin the reporter is not on the list and never has been.

Does that do him any good? We've all heard stories about people who've been hassled for years because they have the same name as a terrorist, and somehow no one seems to be able to do anything about it. Well, the good news is that the government has heard the stories too, and we've done something about it. People whose names match a terrorist's name or alias can now straighten the error out and cut down on the hassles dramatically, just by supplying their date of birth. The bad news is that certain airlines have made this solution a lot less useful than it should be.