Another leak has surfaced at The Intercept, notably a non-Snowden leak ("obtained from a source in the intelligence community") that shows the utter ridiculousness of the government's terrorist watchlist. Nothing states it better than the universal shrug judiciously applied to the 280,000 people that make up the largest portion of the chart.
The culmination of post-9/11 policies and the steady erosion of civil liberties in the service of "fighting terrorism" has opened up nearly 300,000 people to additional scrutiny because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .
The list has increased 10-fold during Obama's stay in office, growing from 47,000 at the end of Bush's term to 680,000, 40% of whom the government is sure represent some sort of a threat, even if it can't quantify that in any specific way.
When U.S. officials refer to "the watchlist," they typically mean the TSDB, an unclassified pool of information shared across the intelligence community and the military, as well as local law enforcement, foreign governments, and private contractors. According to the government's watchlisting guidelines, published by The Intercept last month, officials don't need"concrete facts" or "irrefutable evidence" to secretly place someone on the list—only a vague and elastic standard of "reasonable suspicion."
It's long been noted that articulable facts are unwanted guests in the War on Terrorism (and War on Drugs) discussion. Instead, hunches and gut feelings
are elevated to places formerly occupied by Fourth Amendment protections.
This group of people, shrugged into "nomination" by a variety of government agencies, is then shared with law enforcement, private contractors and foreign governments. That's at least 280,000 people being vetted with impunity by a variety of TSDB end users -- people who are deemed too dangerous to go unsurveilled but not dangerous enough to arrest or investigate further.
If there's any good news here, it's that at least some form of filtering is used to keep the database from swelling exponentially.
Most people placed on the government's watchlist begin in a larger, classified system known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). The TIDE database actually allows for targeting people based on far less evidence than the already lax standards used for placing people on the watchlist. A more expansive—and invasive—database, TIDE's information is shared across the U.S. intelligence community, as well as with commando units from the Special Operations Command and with domestic agencies such as the New York City Police Department.
Those running TIDE have actually celebrated the fact that they recently added the millionth name to the database, failing to see that the constantly-increasing database is actually an admission of failure. If the system was working, the number of names should remain nearly constant, as those who aren't threats are removed from the list (something which apparently never
happens) and those that are
threats are rounded up (or otherwise disposed of
And there seems to be a hint of racial profiling contained within the TSDB numbers.
The top five U.S. cities represented on the main watchlist for "known or suspected terrorists" are New York; Dearborn, Mich.; Houston; San Diego; and Chicago. At 96,000 residents, Dearborn is much smaller than the other cities in the top five, suggesting that its significant Muslim population—40 percent of its population is of Arab descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—has been disproportionately targeted for watchlisting.
Beyond this nearly-suspicionless watchlisting, there's further privacy concerns, prompted by the addition of millions of pieces of biometric data from American citizens, something that ramped up immediately following the Boston Bombing
In the aftermath of last year's Boston Marathon bombing, the Directorate of Terrorist Identities began an aggressive program to collect biometric data and other information on all Americans on the TIDE list. "This project includes record by record research of each person in relevant Department of State and [intelligence community] databases, as well as bulk data requests for information," the documents note.
The DTI also worked on the subsequent Chicago Marathon, performing "deep dives" for biometric and other data on people in the Midwest whose names were on the TIDE list. In the process, the directorate pulled the TIDE records of every person with an Illinois, Indiana, or Wisconsin driver license.
That the many agencies tasked with counterterrorism are operating on instinct rather than articulable suspicion is nothing surprising. The large number of people with "no known terrorist affiliation" being added to a terrorist watchlist is the natural progression of bad policies with 12 years of momentum behind them.
As an additional note, it appears the US government attempted to "scoop" The Intercept by leaking a much more friendly recap of the leaked watchlist details to the AP, at least according to the this tweet by Jeremy Scahill
, one of the post's authors.
If you can't read the tweet, it says:
US government, pissed we were publishing our story, tried to undermine us by leaking it to other news organization right before we published
A look at the AP piece
seems to confirm this, as it presents something more akin to press release than a serious dive into the numbers. (More confirmation at the Huffington Post
. The government claims its scoop "theft" was a "mistake.") It also makes no mention of the information appearing at The Intercept first. The AP's "story" presents this as mostly a triumph by the government, with only the briefest aside about privacy or civil liberties concerns.
This excerpt is indicative of the (very short) article's credulousness:
The database's growth is a result of the government's response to a failed attempt to blow up a commercial airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. The terror operative's name was included in the database before the attack, but it was not on a list that would have prevented him from getting on a U.S.-bound airplane. Since then, the government has lowered the standards for placing someone on the no-fly list and intelligence agencies have become more diligent about submitting names to the TIDE database.
The database was created after the 9/11 terror attacks when it became clear that the government's terror watch list was ineffective. The watch list was once maintained in a rolodex and in paper notebooks, according to redacted photographs provided by the National Counterterrorism Center.
And here's the entirety of the "discussion" about the possible negative of an inflated, nearly-suspicionless watchlist of terrorist suspects.
The government does not need evidence that links someone to terrorism in order for the person to be included in the database. This is among the reasons the database and subsequent terror watch lists have been criticized by privacy advocates.
The AP says it has "learned," but it looks more like it was handed some talking points and an ultra-tight deadline. With thousands of news outlets pulling in the AP feed, this will allow the government to get out ahead of the leak, or at the very least, present a cohesive media presence that presents a "fair" portrayal of its out-of-control counterterrorism databases.