In recent years, the database that the U.S. government uses to store the names of known or suspected terrorists has doubled in size. The number of names started to ramp dramatically up after an attempted terror attack, which most of us know as the underwear bomber. In March of 2010, there were about 550,000 people in this database, but by the end of 2013, there were 1,100,000 names. This is according to newly released figures from the National Counterterrorism Center, which keeps track of this information. This information came from classified government documents which were first obtained by The Intercept.
The name of this list is the Terrorist Screening Database, and it is a watch list of “known or suspected terrorists.” This watch list is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments. Of the hundreds of thousands of names that have been added in the past few years, over 40% are described by the government as having “No recognized terrorist group affiliation.”
The documents also show that since first taking office, president Obama has increased the number of people on the no-fly list dramatically, with the total number of people reaching 47,000 and including the likes of Bolivian president Evo Morales, as well as the head of Lebanon‘s parliament.
David Gomez, a former FBI special agent, comments that “If everything is terrorism, then nothing is terrorism.” He says that the government’s watch listing system is “revving out of control.”
Whenever a US official refers to the “watch list”, they usually mean the Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB. According to the watch listing guidelines set by the government, officials don’t even need “concrete facts” or “irrefutable evidence” in order to place someone secretly on this list. All that is needed is a vague and flexible standard of “reasonable suspicion.” Former FBI agent Gomez says that “You need some fact-basis to say a guy is a terrorist, that you know to a probable-cause standard that he is a terrorist. Then I say, build as big a file as you can on him. But if you just suspect that somebody is a terrorist? Not so much.”
The National Counterterrorism Center offered no response to questions regarding it’s terrorist screening system. Instead they released a statement praising the watch list system as a “critical layer in our counterterrorism defences” and described it as more effective to the pre-9/11 process for tracking threats.
The majority of people placed on the watch list start in a larger, classified system known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment(TIDE). The TIDE database allows for targeting people based on much less evidence than the already low standards used for naming people on the watch list. The TIDE database is much more expansive and intrusive than the TSDB, and the information is shared across the US intelligence community and with various law enforcement agencies.
Michael German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, is justly critical of this watch listing: “You might as well have a blue wand and just pretend there’s magic in it, because that’s what we’re doing with this: pretending it works. These agencies see terrorism as a winning card for them. They get more resources. They know that they can wave that card around and the American public will be very afraid and Congress and the courts will allow them to get away with whatever they’re doing under the national security umbrella.”