The Intercept Reveals The US Government's Guidebook For Declaring You're A Terrorist Or Putting You On The No Fly List

from the because-you-just-might-be-a-terrorist dept

Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Deveraux, over at The Intercept have a giant scoop: the full 166-page guidebook that US law enforcement uses to declare someone a terrorist who deserves to be on one of its various watchlists from the no-fly list to the “terrorist screening database.” We’ve had plenty of stories about the no fly list and the TSDB, and the ridiculous lengths that the US government has gone to to keep anyone from knowing if or why they’re in any of these databases — leading to a series of lawsuits from individuals who were put on that list under very questionable circumstances.

We were happy last month to see that the process for getting off of these watchlists was declared unconstitutional, but the lawsuits over these watchlists suggest that they are prone to abuse and error. We were particularly disturbed to find out in a recent lawsuit that the US government actually has a secret exception to reasonable suspicion for putting people on the list.

The document released by The Intercept is quite revealing, and shows that President Obama has massively expanded the criteria for getting people onto the list. In fact, as the report notes, the President “quietly approved” an expansion “authorizing a secret process that requires neither ?concrete facts? nor ?irrefutable evidence? to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist.”

The new guidelines allow individuals to be designated as representatives of terror organizations without any evidence they are actually connected to such organizations, and it gives a single White House official the unilateral authority to place ?entire categories? of people the government is tracking onto the no fly and selectee lists. It broadens the authority of government officials to ?nominate? people to the watchlists based on what is vaguely described as ?fragmentary information.? It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted.

As you might imagine, given all the stories about people being put on various watchlists even though they’re clearly not terrorists, the guidelines are crazy expansive:

The document?s definition of ?terrorist? activity includes actions that fall far short of bombing or hijacking. In addition to expected crimes, such as assassination or hostage-taking, the guidelines also define destruction of government property and damaging computers used by financial institutions as activities meriting placement on a list. They also define as terrorism any act that is ?dangerous? to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.

And obviously this goes way beyond just boarding (or not boarding) airplanes. As the report notes, if you’re pulled over for speeding and the police run your name, if you’re on the watchlist, the police will get a notification, leading them to automatically think that you’re a suspected terrorist. The guidelines also contradict themselves directly. At first it says that:

To meet the REASONABLE SUSPICION standard, the NOMINATOR, based on the totality of the circumstances, must rely upon articulable intelligence or information which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrants a determination that an individual is known or suspected to be or has been knowingly engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to TERRORISM and/or TERRORIST ACTIVITIES.

Okay. So you need to have a factual basis for reasonable suspicion, right? Wrong:

In determining whether a REASONABLE SUSPICION exists, due weight should be given to the specific reasonable inferences that a NOMINATOR is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his/her experience and not on unfounded suspicions or hunches. Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.

So, it can’t just be a hunch. It has to be a really good hunch seems to be the lesson.

The report also likely reveals the “secret” exceptions to reasonable suspicion that the judge refused to reveal in the Rahinah Ibrahim case we wrote about. She was kept on the watchlist despite there being no reasonable suspicion. One of the exceptions is the “family member” loophole (which some had suggested was likely the issue in the comments to our story about Ibrahim). But it appears the exceptions are much broader:

There are a number of loopholes for putting people onto the watchlists even if reasonable suspicion cannot be met.

One is clearly defined: The immediate family of suspected terrorists?their spouses, children, parents, or siblings?may be watchlisted without any suspicion that they themselves are engaged in terrorist activity. But another loophole is quite broad??associates? who have a defined relationship with a suspected terrorist, but whose involvement in terrorist activity is not known. A third loophole is broader still?individuals with ?a possible nexus? to terrorism, but for whom there is not enough ?derogatory information? to meet the reasonable suspicion standard.

And then there’s the fact that the new “threat-based expedited upgrade” program, which was put in place following the US failing to notice that the famed “underwear bomber” got on his plane despite being on the watchlist. So, rather than recognize that the list was broken, the administration just added a new category, allowing a single White House official the unilateral power to elevate entire “categories of people” into a special list for extra scrutiny.

This extraordinary power for ?categorical watchlisting??otherwise known as profiling?is vested in the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, a position formerly held by CIA Director John Brennan that does not require Senate confirmation.

The rulebook does not indicate what ?categories of people? have been subjected to threat-based upgrades. It is not clear, for example, whether a category might be as broad as military-age males from Yemen. The guidelines do make clear that American citizens and green card holders are subject to such upgrades, though government officials are required to review their status in an ?expedited? procedure. Upgrades can remain in effect for 72 hours before being reviewed by a small committee of senior officials. If approved, they can remain in place for 30 days before a renewal is required, and can continue ?until the threat no longer exists.?

Basically, as most people suspected, it appears the government has broad and, until now, secret powers to effectively ruin someone’s life by placing them on one of these watchlists… with no legitimate way to get off.

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Comments on “The Intercept Reveals The US Government's Guidebook For Declaring You're A Terrorist Or Putting You On The No Fly List”

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Anonymous Coward says:

There is a statement halfway through the article which merits further discussion

…a source within the intelligence community subsequently provided a copy to The Intercept.

If this was a Snowden doc, they would have acknowledged this. There is a very, very strong implication that another person within the IC has decided to step forward and reveal information.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: There is a statement halfway through the article which merits further discussion

On the one hand, I want to say ‘About freakin’ time some more people started putting their duty to the country and people above their ‘duty’ to the government’, yet on the other hand, kinda hard to fault them for being hesitant, when they face a government that has shown itself to be incredibly vindictive and wrathful when it comes to those that expose it’s actions.

Being willing to put everything on the line like that to expose wrongdoing takes some serious guts, so here’s hoping that you’re right and we’ve got another patriot stepping forward, and even more, that he/she doesn’t end up regretting it too much.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I do wonder if it would be possible to infiltrate such positions as Snowden did, but instead to willfully insert errors in those places where oversight is lacking.

Could we nucleate incidents of terror suspicion close enough to VIPs so as to get them a guest pass on the list, such as a Senator’s daughter’s best friend?

Sounds like the plot for a porn skit.

Anonymous Coward says:


So what attributes of a person would fit the profile?

Country of origin
Physical features
gender preferance

Clearly this is ignorance, stereotyping, and discrimination.
If we don’t know which attribute they are looking at, then we don’t know if these people are in a protected class. Is there a quota of affirmative action for letting so many people through with ancestors from a particular geographic or political region?

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: profiling

They would have a whole lot less work to do if they just broke down and started with everyone, ya know, the whole world, then looked for reasons to take people off the list.

Work for our government or some set of US law enforcement, your OK, unless you fit our whistleblower sub-profile.

Member of the 1%, your OK, unless you fail to pay your taxes, or make appropriate donations to political campaigns.

Hmmm, there must be some more excuses to take people off the list……….can’t think of any…..

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: profiling

I could go for a consumption tax (that funded the needs of the government, (the debt can come out of the current political parties assets, there being only two) which will both be bankrupt after this.

No income tax. No corporate tax. But those with disposable, will dispose, and a rate that meets the need, yet restricts un-abandoned imaginations of power enraptured officials.

Everyone will want to, well do everything in America, and we will have to find new reasons to be discriminating, which, BTW is different than discriminatory. That is, if done right.

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: profiling

Which would you rather have: profiling a certain ethinc background or random searches that include 85 year-old grandmothers and 2 year-old babies? Which is a better use of time and resources?
I would say the probability of a 2 year-old being a terrorist is pretty small, but the probability of catching a terrorist at a TSA checkpoint is probably smaller.

Yes, profiling may be bad, but it happens- the thing to do is figure out how to make it work smoothly.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: profiling

Which would you rather have: profiling a certain ethinc background or random searches that include 85 year-old grandmothers and 2 year-old babies?

That is a false dichotomy. If the TSA cannot figure out how to select people who are actually a higher likelihood to be dangerous, then they should not bother. Don’t use useless profiles (eg race) and don’t use randomness either. Just admit that they can’t do it right, and select the level of scrutiny to apply to every single passenger. If that means it takes six hours to get through security, fine – then maybe there will be enough discontent to get something changed.

Yes, profiling may be bad, but it happens- the thing to do is figure out how to make it work smoothly.

Profiling is not bad – racial profiling is bad. And no, we do not want want racial profiling to work smoothly, we want it to not happen at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Entire process is unconstitutional

The judge ruled the process for getting off the list unconstitutional. I would argue the entire process is unconstitutional. Where is any shred of due process found in this?

Like EO 12333, this is just yet another power grab by the executive branch. It is policies such as these that are the makings of a dictatorship.

Long term sentences in a 6×6 cell are the only way to reign these people in to let this government know that we simply will not tolerate this behavior.

David says:


“They also define as terrorism any act that is ‚Äúdangerous‚ÄĚ to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.”

That would certainly apply to all those foreign politicians who publicly talk about not submitting to “free trade” extortion deals if the U.S. does not start heeding international law, their own laws, human rights and common decency.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: All conservatives are terrorists

Well, all liberals are ragingly terrorist, and have been regarded as such since before the new millennium.

The only thing you have to be to qualify as suspect is against the current establishment. It doesn’t matter if it’s because you think Obama is a Nigerian Muslim or because you think mass surveillance and data collection by the NSA is a transgression of your own fourth amendment rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

My daily job is managing the quality of a large database. I’m about a third of the way through this document and I can say that it is essentially a high level, general policy on how to place someone in and take someone out of the watchlisting system. The instructions can at times be quite specific, but mostly they are a high level “consider this, consider that” guideline. That is one reason they can be at times contradictory and why (in the end) just about anyone could be classified as a KNOWN or SUSPECTED TERRORIST, or an “associate” of a KNOWN or SUSPECTED TERRORIST (as an aside, someone is getting a little carried away with the ALL CAPS usage).

With so few restrictions on adding someone to this system, and the natural conservative tendency one would expect a person to have when deciding to remove someone from this system, I predict that in a few short years the databases in this system will be so bloated with “false positives” that the whole system will fail under its own weight. In other words, the typical government sponsored IT system.

It will be interesting to see what replaces this system in the near future…

Anonymous Coward says:

Constitution somehow defeated by terrorists

Apparently all you need to do is throw in Terrorists or Terrorism and you can ignore the basis for government in our country. It began on the excuse of external threats like 9/11, but quickly has been transformed into watching all of us instead. The Department of “Homeland Security” has decided that our rights and freedoms no longer apply and it is all for our own good.

They are vilifying whistle-blowers who prove their lies go all the way up. Based on their demonstrated ability to obtain or plant evidence on anyone with impunity, the voting habits of congress shows they are probably being controlled. The ever increasing red tape constraining the creation of new businesses and industries has already cost us the #1 economic position.

We are also seeing our law being applied worldwide, while ignoring any law that would prevent or limit that. If someone dares to speak out against our illustrious leader, they immediately go on a list that somehow justifies kidnapping, torture and murder in the name of freedom.

If that is the cost of this freedom, they can keep it. I guess we will have to find a new land to continue the american way of innocent until proven guilty, freedom of expression, etc, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Constitution somehow defeated by terrorists

I guess we will have to find a new land to continue the american way of innocent until proven guilty, freedom of expression, etc, etc.

You do not need a new land, especially as all the desirable land is already occupied by someone. What you need is a new government, one that respects the constitution and the bill of rights, and for all peoples not just its own citizens.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Constitution somehow defeated by terrorists

They is actually plenty of unclaimed land, it just happens to be hard to get to right now. Space is the future of freedom. This government has been spending billions to make sure no one can take it down no matter what it does to deserve it.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Space: The Future of Freedom.

I assure you that since it will be settled by big monied corporate interests, that space will first be the future of slavery before it becomes the future of freedom.

It’ll take a few The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress style uprisings and rebellions before space and exoplanet settlers get representation and personal rights.

MonkeyFracasJr (profile) says:

Re: Hyperbole

“the voting habits of congress shows they are probably being controlled”

I think this statement is just a bit paranoid and conspiratory. I do agree that congress members behavior is highly influenced, but that influence is money. And it is largely self-inflicted influence. It may be possible to influence your representative with financial stimulus, but it is FAR easier to find out what they’re looking for and use that.

Put another way, it is easier to influence someone who is looking to be influenced!

If you truly want to expose the conspiracy follow the money.

Anonymous Coward says:

In reading this headline:

The Intercept Reveals The US Government’s Guidebook For Declaring You’re A Terrorist

my first thought was sheesh, now you have to declare you’re a terrorist before the government will accept you as one?

Then I thought, if the government were truly serious about stamping out terrorism, they’d regulate it. Through the DMV.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted."

“That is odd since most dead people…”

Trolling ignored but opportunity grasped. It’s not odd. Dead people by definition have or had parents who may have had friends, other relatives (besides the deceased) and associates of their own. This is highly suspicious you must agree! So all of those people must be listed too. Because guilt by association.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted."

I love how Republicans criticize the retail election fraud of Democrats to draw attention away from their wholesale fraud. It’s straight out of their playbook for every issue: accuse the opposition of whatever it is you are guilty of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Clarification:

Say what? Think you might be stretching it here quite a bit? Unlike most lobbyists being backed by corporations; the NRA is made up of millions of individual members. I am sure they have corporate sponsors as well, but they have many, many voting citizen members which give them their power. Oh and that pesky 2nd amendment thing. Don’t forget that.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Clarification:

The proof is in that, that is the purpose of associations. The difference is when associate members have more (oh I don’t know, lets say speech) than regular members, the association may display publicly positions that are not consistent with the actual positions of the actual members, yet remain the ‘official’ position of the association.

Said association will probably do whatever they can (they carry guns remember) to keep members from expressing significant differences. No aspersions intended or…….carrier

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Clarification:

So the members are not really voters? Like the guy said, they have corporate sponsors as well, but they have millions of voting members that the electorate is loathe to ignore.

providing money and political pressure.

Isn’t that what lobbies do; lobby on behalf of their members? Nice of you to prove the guys point.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Clarification:

Actually, when I read that I immediately thought of 2008, when a group of bankers took the entire world economy hostage and threatened to execute it unless their demands for money and political concessions were met.

Largest terrorist act in history right there (yes, bigger than 9/11, when you consider the number of people who ended up dead due to exposure after bogus evictions, etc) and it went 100% unpunished.

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