How a Fulbright Grant Landed Us on a TSA Watchlist
It started last year, when I taught English in Turkey on a Fulbright. Flying back home to the United States during winter break, I was mildly irritated when an unfriendly security agent at London’s Heathrow airport pulled me out of line to be searched. A second agent rifled through my luggage, pulling out each item for inspection, and asked me for a comprehensive account of my travels in Turkey. Inconvenient, sure, but not terribly alarming.
Until it happened again. And again. It took a few repeat occurrences before I realized the year I’d spent in Turkey might mean I’d never pass airport security unnoticed by airport security again. And it isn’t just me.
When I checked with my fellow Fulbrighters, I found that our stint in Turkey had resulted in “enhanced screening” for a third of our cohort of 60. Most were subjected to extra screening and questioning about their activities in Turkey. A few reported more intrusive questions — one person was detained during pre-boarding by officials from the American embassy, who subjected him to several minutes of questioning about his placement and friends in his host city, and ended the conversation by telling him that they wanted to ensure he “hadn’t become a radical.”
At least twelve of us were placed on the “Selectee List” (denoted by an “SSSS” stamped on boarding passes) which subjects individuals to full luggage searches and being swabbed for explosives. It sometimes even extended to friends and family. One Fulbrighter reported that her mother was detained for screening on multiple flights after she visited her in Turkey for a week.
It happens when flying within the U.S. and at airports around the world, and with no good explanation. Several people reported that the TSA agents searching them seemed just as perplexed by the SSSS designation as they were. A few reported being taken off screening lists a few months after their return from Turkey. Others were screened as recently as last week. For everyone, the common thread was our time abroad — despite being fully funded and supported by the U.S. government.
At its most innocuous, it’s annoying. It means extra hours in line and missed flights. (Try boarding a flight as a brown-skinned person after your co-passengers have just witnessed your luggage being thoroughly picked apart, and see how many awkward stares you get.) But it’s also a civil rights violation.
According to The Intercept, there are an estimated 47,000 people on the “No-Fly” list, and 16,000 people classified as “selectees” subject to extra screening. But the Watchlisting Guidance identifies another category called the “expanded selectee list” which is likely the category my fellow Fulbrighters fell under. The criteria for the “expanded” list are incredibly broad, and we have no estimates for how many people are likely to be on it. Moreover, the security process is notoriously opaque. Once you’re on a watchlist, there are few means of getting off.
A lot of people will argue that heightened surveillance is necessary, and that perhaps over-vigilance is better than risking the catastrophic tragedies that have occurred when security checks fail. But overly bloated screening lists are also inefficient counterterrorism policy.
As we’ve seen in several recent terror attacks, the perpetrators were previously known to authorities. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was listed in the federal Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, which contains around 700,000 names and is the primary repository for most other government watchlists, including — you guessed it — the TSA’s no-fly list. Cherif and Said Kouachi were on terror watchlists in the U.S. and U.K., and monitored by French intelligence authorities years before the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred. It’s easy for real threats to fall through the cracks when everyone is a suspect.
On my last international flight, I was pleasantly surprised to breeze through security without the usual extended pat-down — maybe my days of being a threat to national security are over at last. But it’s still unsettling to know that something as innocuous as a government-sponsored trip to a NATO-allied nation could have landed me on a watchlist without my knowledge.
DHS’s redress process for people who believe they’re mistakenly on a watchlist rarely achieves results. The most a complaint to DHS gets you is an official letter claiming they’re “unable to deny or confirm watchlist status” which means individuals have no real means of contesting their status as a potential-terrorist-to-watch. Accordingly, people often languish on watchlists indefinitely with no real recourse.
Our watchlisting system is in clear need of narrower criteria and a commitment to weeding out inaccuracies. Effective redress tools are good counterterrorism policy — toddlers,senators, and Cub Scouts likely don’t belong on watchlists and lacking a process to remove them has resulted in one of the most bloated “security” systems in the world. And it isn’t making us safer.