The Government’s Bloated Watchlist

Watch List

Yesterday, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux reported that almost “half of the people on the U.S. government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist group, according to classified government documents obtained by The Intercept”:

Of the 680,000 people caught up in the government’s Terrorist Screening Database—a watchlist of “known or suspected terrorists” that is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments—more than 40 percent are described by the government as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” That category—280,000 people—dwarfs the number of watchlisted people suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah combined.

The documents, obtained from a source in the intelligence community, also reveal that the Obama Administration has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the terrorist screening system. Since taking office, Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000—surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush.

Timothy B Lee asks, “Is this a good way to fight terrorism?”

A lot of people don’t think so.

Critics point out that having too many people in a terrorism database can be just as bad as too few. If law enforcement and intelligence agencies are “watching” hundreds of thousands of people, that could mean they’re not actually watching anyone very carefully at all.

Civil libertarians also argue that the secret nature of these lists can run afoul of basic concepts of due process. If you’re put on a watchlist by accident, as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy once was, it can be extremely difficult to get off. And government critics such as Laura Poitras and Jacob Appelbaum have reported being detained and harassed by US officials when they’ve traveled to and from the United States.

The government counters that it can’t tell people who is on its lists and why without compromising intelligence sources and methods. But the result has been to turn airports into a kind of Constitution-free zone, where ordinary principles of due process don’t apply.

Ambinder’s take:

Watchlisting is fine; the uncertainty about the identities of terrorists implies that the list of suspected al Qaeda members will be much larger than the actual list. But providing to the National Counterterrorism Center bulk biometric data from all Americans in a certain number of states? The disproportionate targeting of Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan? The ease with which the government can open a file on you? Not only does the noise drown out the signal, but the actual harm done to people — inconvenience at airports, harassment at border crossings — is tangible.

Scott Shackford sighs:

[T]he first thing this report for 2013 (pdf) describes as an “accomplishment” is adding its one millionth person to its database:

On 28 June 2013, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) passed a milestone of one million persons in TIDE. While NCTC’s Directorate of Terrorist Identities (DTI) seeks to create only as many person records as are necessary for our nation’s counterterrorism mission, this number is a testament to DTI’s hard work and dedication over the past 2.5 years.

It’s a monument to the twisted incentives that drive bureaucracies. Having a watch list of a million people is considered an accomplishment even though it contains hundreds of thousands of people with no known ties to terrorist groups.