In Depth

Terrorism watchlist: secret US rules revealed

Agencies don't need 'concrete facts' to label individuals terrorists – so how are people watchlisted?

A secret US government rulebook, revealing details of how its internal terrorist watchlist is compiled, has been published in full by The Intercept, the investigative website set up by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

The 116 page document was written by the National Counterterrorism Center in March 2013 and includes input from the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, FBI and other national agencies. It authorises "a secret process that requires neither 'concrete facts' nor 'irrefutable evidence' to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist", says the website.

What is the Terrorism Watchlist and how many people are on it?

The FBI describes the Terrorism Watchlist as one of its "most effective counterterrorism tools".

The list is shared with local US law enforcement, international governments and "private entities", helping them to identify confirmed and potential terrorists trying to secure travel documents, board planes or in engage in other potentially dangerous activities.

Over 1.5 million names have been added to the list in the last five years, according to the Associated Press.

What did the document reveal?

The document includes a "wide definition of what constitutes terrorism and a low threshold for designating someone a terrorist", says The Intercept.

Individuals are never told why they have been placed on the watchlist and the rules make it "nearly impossible to get off it".

So who can be placed on the list?
  • US and foreign nationals who have previously engaged in terrorism.
  • Anyone government agencies "reasonably suspect" to be a terrorist. The suspicion needs to be based on gathered intelligence, "mere hunches and guesses are not sufficient" to watchlist someone, the report states.
  • Entire "categories" of people can be placed on the list if a terror threat is imminent.
  • Someone who has already been acquitted of a terrorism crime by the courts can still be watchlisted.
  • People who have died often remain on the watchlist in case their identities are stolen by other potential terrorists.
  • The document contains "loopholes" whereby a suspected terrorist's family, friends and acquaintances can also be placed on the list.
What has the response been?

The rules are "an abuse of privilege" says The Freedom of the Press Foundation.

"Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists, the government has built a vast system based on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future," says Hina Shamsi, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project.

"On that dangerous theory, the government is secretly blacklisting people as suspected terrorists and giving them the impossible task of proving themselves innocent of a threat they haven't carried out."

The government is yet to comment on the release of the documents.

What are the consequences?

A watchlist with over a million names on it has wider implications, not just for civil liberties, but for national security, law professor Anya Bernstein told MintPress news.

"Having irrelevant people on these lists is not something harmless, like receiving a couple of pieces of junk mail that you can throw out", she said. "It actually places us in danger, because the avalanche of irrelevance distracts agents from actual dangers. It's not a couple of pieces of junk mail, it's hundreds of thousands of spam emails cluttering up your inbox, making it hard to spot the important stuff."

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