Claim: Seventy-two Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees are on the U.S. terror watch list.

MOSTLY FALSE:

WHAT’S TRUE: An investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security found 73 airport workers may have been improperly vetted against a terrorist watch list.

WHAT’S FALSE/: 72 DHS employees were found to be on a terror watch list, the airport worker discovery referenced above occurred in December 2015, the head of the DHS was forced to resign over the scandal.

Example: [Collected via e-mail, December 2015]

From Freebeacon.com “72 DHS employees on no fly list” date Dec. 6, 2015. This sounds suspect to me.

Origins: In early December 2015, multiple web sites reported that 72 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees had been found to be listed on a “terror watch list.” This assertion originated with a 1 December 2015 article by Boston station television WGBH titled “Congressman Lynch: 72 Department of Homeland Security Employees on Terrorist Watchlist.”

That article summarized a Boston Public Radio Podcast, during which hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan discussed with Congressman Stephen Lynch the issue of Democratic support for a Republican initiative to increase screening measures for incoming Syrian refugees. Eagan posed the following question to Rep. Lynch:

Let’s start with the vote on the Syrian refugees. Why were you with those [47 democrats in the house of representatives defied a house veto threat by backing a GOP bill to ramp up screening requirements for Syrian and Iraqi refugees]?

Lynch explained that the bill in question was “very simple” but became “subsumed within a larger discussion about immigration policy.” Adding that he felt there had been “disastrous results [thus far] with the screening process,” Lynch stated:

Back in August, we did an investigation — the inspector General did — of the Department of Homeland Security, and they had 72 individuals that were on the terrorist watch list that were actually working at the Department of Homeland Security. The director had to resign because of that.

Lynch’s assertion wasn’t a new revelation, as he claimed the discovery had occurred in 
August 2015.
However, a CBS News article (and several other similar articles) published months earlier documented that Lynch’s
December 2015
statement was largely inaccurate.

According to those articles, 73 (not 72) individuals were referenced in a 4 June 2015 document released by the DHS’ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) under the title “TSA Can Improve Aviation Worker Vetting (Redacted).” As the title indicated, portions of the publicly available document (PDF) were redacted for security reasons. The report (issued in June 2015, not August 2015) held that
73 airport
workers and vendors had been improperly or insufficiently cleared by the Transportation Security Administration due to gaps in procedure. The first paragraph of that 34-page report read:

TSA’s multi-layered process to vet aviation workers for potential links to terrorism was generally effective. In addition to initially vetting every application for new credentials, TSA recurrently vetted aviation workers with access to secured areas of commercial airports every time the Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist was updated. However, our testing showed that TSA did not identify 73 individuals with terrorism-related category codes because TSA is not authorized to receive all terrorism-related information under current interagency watchlisting policy.

As the excerpt above clarified, the DHS OIG’s report examined “aviation workers” (a broad category spanning airline employees, airport contract workers, and vendors), not DHS personnel: Lynch’s comments implied the workers were directly under the employ of the DHS rather than its TSA sub-agency (which was originally part of the Department of Transportation). Moreover, those 73 aviation workers were described as “individuals with terrorism-related category codes,” which appeared slightly more nuanced than the claim they were on “the terrorist watch list.” Determining the specifics of those codes is difficult, as portions of the report were redacted for security purposes.  It’s possible that Congressman Lynch was privy to information that provided additional relevant context for his assertion, but his broader statement was still misleading.

It is also worth noting that the report held that the TSA’s comprehensive screening process was “generally effective,” and that aviation workers were subject to multiple checks against the Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist. The report did, however, maintain that the TSA lacked the ability to fully vet aviation workers and recommended that the agency partner with the DHS to “formalize a request to the Watchlisting Interagency Committee through its Screening Coordination Office.” Many portions of the report were repetitive, and it included several mentions of the TSA’s lack of legal authorization to execute “recurrent criminal history vetting” (with some exceptions).

Given Lynch’s statements, one outside possibility was that he referenced an entirely separate audit that was not made public, but the number of individuals and TSA-specific details he cited indicated otherwise.  It appeared that Lynch conflated DHS employees with aviation workers subject to TSA security clearances, whose terrorism-related category codes went unnoticed due to inter-agency bureaucracy.

On 2 June 2015, ABC News reported that acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway (not a DHS director, as Lynch stated) was reassigned due to the DHS OIG’s findings. Moreover, most news reports cited separate security breaches unrelated to aviation worker screening as the reason for that reassignment:

The acting director of the Transportation Security Administration has been reassigned after an internal investigation revealed security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement that Melvin Carraway would be moved to the Office of State and Local Law Enforcement at DHS headquarters “effective immediately.:

Officials close to the secretary said the decision was made based on the findings in the Homeland Security Inspector General’s report, in which a series of tests were conducted by the department’s Red Teams who pose as passengers. It found that TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints, according to officials briefed on the report.

The above-linked CBS article also reported that Carraway’s reassignment was not due to findings that related to improper aviation worker vetting, but rather a separate investigation that targeted the effectiveness of TSA agents:

The report follows the revelation that undercover agents posing as passengers were able to sneak mock explosives or banned weapons through security checkpoints 95% of the time. The test found a potential vulnerability with airport body scanners.

Last updated: 7 December 2015

Originally published: 7 December 2015