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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rubio Wrong on Terrorist List

Sen. Marco Rubio vastly overstated the number of Americans on the federal government’s various terrorist watch lists. He said there are “700,000 Americans on some watch list,” but the number is actually in the tens of thousands.

Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida running for president, voted Dec. 3 against a Democratic-sponsored amendment that would have allowed the U.S. attorney general to use the consolidated terrorist watch list to deny a known or suspected terrorist from legally buying a weapon, if there is “a reasonable belief that the applicant may use a firearm in connection with terrorism.”

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, failed 45-54, largely along party lines. Only one Republican voted for it, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, and only one Democrat voted against it, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

CNN’s “State of the Union” anchor Jake Tapper asked Rubio about his vote, noting that President Obama has called for Congress to prevent those on the terrorist no-fly list from legally obtaining guns.

Rubio, Dec. 6: If these were perfect lists, that would be one thing. But there are over 700,000 Americans on some watch list or another that would all be captured under this amendment the Democrats offered. And that’s the problem. The vast — there aren’t 700,000 terrorists operating in America openly on watch lists. They include vast numbers of Americans who have names similar to someone we’re looking for. Sometimes, you’re only on that list because the FBI wants to talk to you about someone you know, not because you’re a suspect. And, again, now your Second Amendment right is being impeded with.

Tapper: I don’t think it’s accurate to say that a majority of them are on the list by accident, but let me —

Rubio: A very significant number of people on those lists are on there because they have names similar to somebody else. My office deals with dozens of calls every year from people that are on no-fly lists or identified lists of watch lists. It’s not just the no-fly lists. That’s not just the no-fly lists.

Tapper: So, these watch lists should just be — these watch lists should just be ignored?

Rubio: No, they shouldn’t be ignored. But they shouldn’t be used as a tool to impede 700,000 Americans or potential Americans — people on that list from having access to be able to fully utilize their Second Amendment rights.

There are many people on no-fly lists that are not terrorists, not just no-fly lists — I apologize — on any of these terror watch lists, because that amendment was not just limited to the no-fly list. That’s not a perfect database. And it has a significant number of errors.

The government maintains multiple terrorist lists. The largest is known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) maintains TIDE, which the nonpartisan Congressional Research Office in a 2013 report referred to as the government’s “central repository” of international terrorists and suspected terrorists. CRS said “TIDE contained over 740,000 persons, most with multiple minor spelling variations of their names” as of December 2011. That number stood at 1.1 million as of December 2013, according to a NCTC fact sheet.

However, only about 2.3 percent of the 1.1 million people on the consolidated watch list are American citizens or legal permanent residents. “U.S. Persons (including both citizens and legal permanent residents) account for about 25,000 of that total,” the NCTC fact sheet says.

The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center separately maintains the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), which is “commonly referred to as the Terrorist Watchlist,” as TSC Director Christopher M. Piehota said in testimony on Sept. 18, 2014, before the House Homeland Security Committee. At the hearing, Piehota explained that the FBI’s terrorist watch list includes names of people drawn from the TIDE database and from the FBI’s own surveillance of “domestic terrorists that may have connections to international terrorism.” Piehota explained the process for how names are added to the official terrorist watch list.

Piehota, Sept. 18, 2014: Federal departments and agencies submit nominations of known or suspected international terrorists to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) for inclusion in NCTC’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database. NCTC reviews TIDE entries and transmits entries to TSC that include sufficient identifiers and are supported with information that meet the reasonable suspicion watchlisting standard described below. Similarly, the FBI collects, stores, and forwards information to the TSC relating to domestic terrorists that may have connections to international terrorism.

During questioning, Piehota told the House committee that as of September 2014 there were 800,000 people on the terrorist watch list. He did not say how many of them are U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents. However, the 2013 CRS report said that about 5 percent of those on the TSC’s terrorist watch list were U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents as of May 2010. If that percentage remains the same, then about 40,000 Americans were on the terrorist watch list as of September 2014 — far less than the 700,000 claimed by Rubio.

We’d like to make one other point about the debate over barring terrorists from legally obtaining weapons. President Obama, in his Dec. 6 address to the nation on terrorism, called on Congress “to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun.” But, as Rubio said, the Democratic amendment went further than just those on the no-fly list. Feinstein’s office told us the amendment would have allowed the attorney general to use three terrorist databases: TIDE, TSDB and the no-fly list. The no-fly list is a subset of TSDB (the terrorist watch list). 

How many Americans are on the no-fly list? In his House testimony, Piehota said “[a]pproximately 0.8 percent of the overall TSDB population,” which would be about 6,400 U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents.

Rubio has a point that the terrorist watch list is “not a perfect database.” And he is right that the Democratic amendment would have covered far more Americans than just those on the no-fly list. But he’s wrong when he says that “over 700,000 Americans on some watch list or another … would all be captured under this amendment the Democrats offered.” The number is in the tens of thousands.