Less Than One Percent of ‘Known or Suspected Terrorists’ Were Put on ‘No Fly’ List

By Terence P. Jeffrey | January 6, 2010 | 3:58 PM EST

(CNSNews.com) - As of one month ago, less than one percent of the people the U.S. government has designated as “known or suspected terrorists” had been put on the “No Fly” list that the Department of Homeland Security uses to screen air travelers, according to data provided to the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Dec. 9 by Timothy J. Healy, director of the Justice Department’s Terrorist Screening Center.
According to Healy, the full “Terrorist Watchlist” included at that moment approximately 400,000 people, while the “No Fly” list included only about 3,400 of those—or 0.85 percent.

Healy testified in the committee a little more than two weeks before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit and tried to detonate explosives he had smuggled aboard in his underwear. Healy’s statement to the committee about the “No Fly” list was not reported at the time by any newspaper that appears in the Lexis-Nexis database.
After meeting with his national security team yesterday, President Barack Obama lamented that Adulmutallab had not been one of the people put on the “No Fly” list. “Counterterrorism officials have reviewed and updated our terrorist watch list system, including adding more individuals to the ‘no fly’ list,” said Obama. “And while our review has found that our watch-listing system is not broken, the failure to add Abdulmutallab to the ‘no fly’ list shows that this system needs to be strengthened."

In his Dec. 9 testimony, Healy had stressed the smallness of the “No Fly” list, a theme that had also been sounded a year before by then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“The terrorist watch list is made up of approximately 400,000 people, ranging from suicide bombers to financiers,” Healy said in his opening statement to the committee. “A small portion of the list is exported to TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] to create the No Fly list. In order to be placed on a No Fly list, a known or suspected terrorist must present a threat to civil aviation or national security. Consequently, the No Fly list is a very small subset of the terrorist watch list. It contains approximately 3,400 people. Of those, approximately 170 are U.S. citizens.”

The TSA also uses one other subset of the overall Terrorist Watchlist to screen air travelers. People on this list—called the “Selectee” list—are not automatically barred from flying but are targeted for intensified scrutiny when they arrive at an airport seeking to board a flight. At an October 28, 2008 press conference at Reagan national airport outside Washington, D.C., then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the “Selectee” list included fewer than 16,000 names drawn from the overall Terrorist Watchlist (formally known as the Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB).

“The truth is, there are fewer than 16,000--that's 1-6 --16,000 unique individuals who are selectees in TSA's database,” said Chertoff at that 2008 press conference. “Most of these people are not even American citizens. That's 16,000, 1-6. And being a selectee, if you are a real selectee, means you're going to get a little bit of extra scrutiny. But it does not bar you from getting on the airplane.”

At the same press conference, Chertoff said the “No Fly” list then included less than 2,500 people of whom only 10 percent were Americans. That would mean that between October 2008 and December 2009, when Healy testified to the Homeland Security Committee, the “No Fly” list grew by about 900 “known or suspected terrorists” while the number of Americans on the list declined somewhat.

“Second, the actual number of people who are on the ‘No Fly’ list, meaning that they are barred from flying, under any circumstance, is less than 2,500,” said Chertoff in October 2008. “And only 10 percent of those are American citizens. Again less than 2,500 worldwide are actually no-flys. And 10 percent--less than 10 percent of those are American citizens.

The size of the TSDB has apparently remained fairly stable over the past year.  Rick Kopel, the principal deputy director of the Terrorist Screening Center, told the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security on September 19, 2008, that it even then included 400,000 people.

When implementing the congressionally mandated Secure Flight program, which gives TSA control over screening for terrorists trying to board flights in the U.S. or headed to the U.S., DHS decided it would ordinarily screen passengers only against the “No Fly” and “Selectee” lists and not against the full TSDB.

“In general, the Secure Flight program will compare passenger information only to the No Fly and Selectee List components of the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), which contains the Government’s consolidated terrorist watch list, maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC),” said the October 28, 2008 edition of the Federal Register, which included the DHS’s regulatory plan for screening air passengers.

“In general, comparing passenger information against the No Fly and Selectee components of the TSDB during normal security circumstances will be satisfactory to counter the security threat versus using the entire TSDB,” said the register entry by DHS. “The No Fly and Selectee Lists are based on all the records in the TSDB and the No Fly and Selectee Lists represent the subset of names who meet the criteria of the No Fly and Selectee designations.”

In July 2009, the DHS inspector general's office published a report stating that because TSA would screen air passengers against only the No Fly and Selectee lists and not the full TSDB, some terrorists would not be prohibited from flying.

“Not all known or reasonably suspected terrorists are prohibited from boarding an aircraft, or are subject to additional security screening prior to boarding an aircraft,” said the IG’s report. “This is reflected in the number of records and identities in the TSDB that are not included on the No Fly and Selectee lists.”

Despite this, the IG report concluded that it was safe for the TSA not to screen passengers against the full watchlist, noting that the U.S. has a multilayered screening system for travelers that in the international environment includes the State Department, which screens visa applicants, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which currently screens passengers boarding flights coming from abroad.  (In carrying out its assigned duties under the Secure Flight program, TSA this year will take over from CBP the screening of passenger boarding U.S.-bound flights from abroad.)

The DHS IG report examining TSA’s decision to use of the No Fly and Selectee lists instead of the full Terrorist Watchlist to screen air passengers said that the smaller lists are designed to screen out “specific categories of terrorists.”

“In applying more narrow requirements than the TSDB’s minimum substantive derogatory criteria requirements, the No Fly and Selectee lists are intended to prevent specific categories of terrorists from boarding commercial aircraft or subject these terrorists to secondary screening prior to boarding, and are not for use as law enforcement or intelligence-gathering tools,” said the report.

The 9/11 Commission Report said: “The ‘no fly’ and ‘automatic selectee’ lists include only those individuals who the U.S. government believes pose a direct threat of attacking aviation.”  The commission recommended, however, that the TSA “should utilize the larger set of watchlists maintained by the federal government.”