WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration has created a new secret watch list to monitor people who may be targeted as potential threats at airport checkpoints simply because they have swatted away security screeners’ hands or otherwise appeared unruly.
A five-page directive obtained by the New York Times said actions that pose physical danger to security screeners — or other contact that the agency described as “offensive and without legal justification” — could land travelers on the watch list, which was created in February and is also known as a “95 list.”
“An intent to injure or cause physical pain is not required, nor is an actual physical injury,” said the directive that was issued in March by Darby LaJoye, the agency’s assistant administrator for security operations.
So far, the names of fewer than 50 people have been put on the watch list, said Kelly Wheaton, a TSA deputy chief counsel.
But two other government security officials who are familiar with the list, describing it on the condition of anonymity, said the number of names on the list could be higher, with travelers added daily.
According to the directive, people who loiter suspiciously near security checkpoints could be put on the watch list. So could those who present what the document vaguely described as “challenges to the safe and effective completion of screening.”
The guidelines prohibit profiling based on race, religion or gender, and said those categories could not be used as the sole reason for including a passenger on the watch list. But the directive said such factors could be used when they are relevant and fit specific intelligence.
However, on its own, the list cannot be used to prevent passengers from boarding flights, nor can it impel extra screening at security checkpoints, the document said. That has raised questions about whether it serves a legitimate security purpose and has heightened civil liberty concerns over the added government surveillance.
“If I’m running late, having a bad day and I’m rude to the screeners, do I get put on the list?” said Fred Burton, the chief security officer at Stratfor, a global intelligence company in Austin, Texas.
“The bottom line is that in the post 9/11 world, do we really need another watch list — particularly one from the TSA, which is not an intelligence agency?” said Burton, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism at the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
Wheaton said the new list aims to protect airport security screeners from travelers who previously have been demonstrably unruly at, or near, checkpoints. He said screeners were assaulted 34 times last year, up from 26 in 2016.
Matthew Leas, a TSA spokesman, said the agency “wants to ensure there are safeguards in place to protect Transportation Security Officers and others from any individual who has previously exhibited disruptive or assaultive behavior at a screening checkpoint and is scheduled to fly.”
The U.S. government maintains a bevy of watch lists.
The most well known, maintained by the FBI, is a large database of the names of more than 1 million people — including tens of thousands of U.S. citizens or legal residents — who are known or suspected terrorists. Officials rely on that database to compile the no-fly list that has been criticized for barring travelers based on mistaken identities, including prominent politicians, celebrities and young children.
The Secret Service maintains a watch list of people who pose a potential threat to government officials or buildings.
But the new TSA database, according to people familiar with it, includes travelers who have simply had a verbal altercation with security officers or have interfered in the screening process.