Monday, October 13, 2014
Barack Obama’s Secret Terrorist-Tracking System, by the Numbers
Nearly 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.
“If everything is terrorism, then nothing is terrorism,” says David Gomez, a former senior FBI special agent. The watchlisting system, he adds, is “revving out of control.”
The classified documents were prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center, the lead agency for tracking individuals with suspected links to international terrorism. Stamped “SECRET” and “NOFORN” (indicating they are not to be shared with foreign governments), they offer the most complete numerical picture of the watchlisting system to date. Among the revelations:
• The second-highest concentration of people designated as “known or suspected terrorists” by the government is in Dearborn, Mich.—a city of 96,000 that has the largest percentage of Arab-American residents in the country.
• The government adds names to its databases, or adds information on existing subjects, at a rate of 900 records each day.
• The CIA uses a previously unknown program, code-named Hydra, to secretly access databases maintained by foreign countries and extract data to add to the watchlists.
A U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with watchlisting data told The Intercept that as of November 2013, there were approximately 700,000 people in the Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB, but declined to provide the current numbers. Last month, the Associated Press, citing federal court filings by government lawyers, reported that there have been 1.5 million names added to the watchlist over the past five years. The government official told The Intercept that was a misinterpretation of the data. “The list has grown somewhat since that time, but is nowhere near the 1.5 million figure cited in recent news reports,” he said. He added that the statistics cited by the Associated Press do not just include nominations of individuals, but also bits of intelligence or biographical information obtained on watchlisted persons.
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.”
“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,” says Gomez, the former FBI agent. “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 did not respond to questions about its terrorist screening system. Instead, in a statement, it praised the watchlisting system as a “critical layer in our counterrorism defenses” and described it as superior to the pre-9/11 process for tracking threats, which relied on lists that were “typed or hand-written in card catalogues and ledgers.” The White House declined to comment.