Brings Transparency to Screening Practices, Makes Recommendations to Strengthen National Security & Safeguard Americans from Terrorist Threats while Protecting Civil Liberties
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a report identifying how screening practices at airports that build on and expand beyond the terror watchlist have ballooned over time. These practices, which repeatedly ensnare travelers who may pose no danger to national security, could be diverting critical counterterrorism resources away from identifying other serious security threats. The report finds that despite necessary and well-intended efforts to protect the United States from terrorist and other security threats, the federal government has created a layered and duplicative screening system that is so opaque and complicated, it is difficult for the government to explain, and for American citizens to understand why they have been flagged for secondary screening or how they can seek real redress. According to the report’s findings, there are at least 22 different mechanisms that might lead Americans to receive additional screening at airports and other ports of entry or be denied the ability to travel – not all security related – and yet the U.S. government does not look comprehensively across all of these policies to assess their combined effectiveness or whether they impact certain individuals or communities more than others. Members of the Arab, Muslim and South Asian American communities in particular report that they are unfairly targeted by these screening practices, though federal agencies do not effectively assess whether discrimination occurs in these processes. The report outlines reforms to strengthen our national security by improving and instilling confidence in government screening practices, and calling for greater transparency and an improved redress processes that would allow affected Americans to seek effective remedy if they feel they are mistakenly caught in this system.
“As federal agencies continue to work diligently to protect our national security and keep travelers safe, it is crucial that we are doing so in an effective way that upholds our country’s civil liberties. My report examines the current processes for safeguarding our nation against terrorist and other threats at airports and other ports of entry, and gives concrete steps to improve these practices and protect the diverse communities in Michigan and across the country who feel like they are unnecessarily subjected to intrusive screenings with no recourse,” said Senator Peters. “This report will increase transparency and make recommendations to increase national security, build confidence that our practices align with threats, and help ensure resources are focused efficiently.”
“For far too long the Arab American community has endured costly and humiliating travel experiences with little to no understanding or recourse. The lack of transparency surrounding watchlists and screening has directly contributed to the ongoing targeting of our community,” said Abed Ayoub, National Executive Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). “ADC appreciates the work of Committee staff, thanks Chair Peters for his commitment to greater transparency, and is honored to have been able to contribute to the report. We look forward to the implementation of the recommendations made by the committee and stand ready to assist in whatever way is needed.”
“The watchlisting regime is desperately in need of review. We appreciate Chairman Peters’ leadership in calling for additional oversight, transparency, and data collection. These oversight efforts – from Congress, the inspectors general, and the GAO – will be critical to ensure that the watchlist, and the government’s traveler screening programs overall, are proportionate, effective, and bias-free,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, Brennan Center for Justice.
“We welcome this important report, which provides a long-overdue Congressional focus on the secrecy and unfairness infusing U.S. watchlisting and screening activities. This report confirms the dramatic growth in opaque U.S. watchlisting and reveals the proliferation of other border screening mechanisms that can infringe on American’s civil rights and liberties. For decades, impacted communities and rights groups have documented allegations of discrimination in these programs and the abysmal failure of the DHS redress process to provide even basic transparency let alone meaningful remedies against wrongful watchlisting or screening. Thanks to Senator Peters and majority staff, Congress has taken a much-needed oversight step and we look forward to meaningful full investigations and necessary reforms,” said Hina Shamsi, Director of the National Security Project, American Civil Liberties Union.
The report’s key findings include:
· There are at least 22 different mechanisms that might lead Americans to receive additional screening at airports and other ports of entry or be denied the ability to travel. Some of these reasons may be derived from the terrorist watchlist, but they may also be related to agencies’ other security measures, including their agriculture, immigration, health, and law enforcement missions, as well as at the discretion of a primary screening officer.
· The size of the terrorist watchlist has increased dramatically since its creation. As of November 2022, there are approximately 1.8 million records in the terrorist watchlist, up from 150,000 in 2004.
· The executive branch is not holistically assessing whether discrimination is occurring across the full screening enterprise. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) screen travelers under different authorities and for different reasons, yet individuals experience their travel process as a whole. Although each component assesses the privacy and civil liberties impacts of different aspects of their screening systems, neither TSA nor CBP collect data to assess whether there are individuals and groups that face repeated screening because of the agencies’ layered approach.
· The redress process is not transparent. The Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) does not provide individuals with information about why they are experiencing additional screening or if their application for redress will affect their status on the terrorist watchlist, nor does it provide Congress with information on how many errors, corrections, or revisions are made as a result of redress efforts. Combined with the multiple reasons people might receive additional screening, travelers who apply for redress are left with little understanding of what they will experience the next time they travel or whether redress worked.
The report’s key recommendations include:
· Ensure Full Accountability of the Watchlist Enterprise: Due to the scope of the terrorist watchlist, its opacity, the lack of oversight, and its impact on the lives of Americans and lawful permanent residents included on the list, Congress should request the relevant Inspectors General conduct a coordinated, full-scope review of the watchlist enterprise, including a quality assurance review of nominations and examination of information sharing practices.
· Reform the Redress Process: Congress should require the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to provide Congress with a plan to meaningfully reform the redress process. This plan should ensure there is a real path for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to seek redress from the watchlist and other screening processes, improve transparency, and build confidence in the screening and redress processes. Further, to make sure this plan balances national security with civil liberties as well as integrates feedback from the public, the Secretary should develop the new redress process in coordination with representatives of impacted communities.
· Establish a Screening and Watchlisting Council: Congress should create a Screening and Watchlisting Advisory Council at DHS composed of government and non-governmental representatives to advise the Secretary on the development, implementation, modification, and oversight of screening, watchlisting, and redress policies and processes at DHS. This council would create a venue for ongoing dialogue between relevant government representatives and members of communities impacted by DHS policies as well as outside experts.
· Holistically Track Screening Activities: Congress should direct DHS to begin tracking all additional screenings by both TSA and CBP in a systematic manner across the screening enterprise, including the reasons for screenings, and whether they impact specific individuals and communities. DHS should provide annual reports to Congress outlining the full number of screenings each year, broken down by reasons for screening, individuals screened, and whether, in tracking this data, DHS uncovers discrimination or disproportionate impacts on specific individuals or communities. This would allow both DHS and Congress to assess the impact screenings across the enterprise have on groups and individuals and whether the redundancy DHS has built into the system also leads to discrimination.
In his role on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Peters has pressed for greater transparency and fair treatment for all travelers in travel screening processes. At Peters’ urging, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in 2022 assessing the TSA’s travel screenings for discrimination and making recommendations for improvement. Peters requested the report after Michiganders, including members of the Arab American and Muslim American communities, shared reports of persistent and potentially discriminatory enhanced screening practices. Peters has hosted DHS Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas in Dearborn to meet with leaders from Michigan’s Arab and Muslim American communities to discuss travel screening and other civil rights issues. Following that meeting, Customs and Border Protection established a new position to serve as a community relations liaison between the agency and Michigan’s Arab and Muslim American communities. Peters has also hosted Acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller as well as then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to discuss important homeland security topics, including how government practices impact Michigan’s diverse communities.