Classified Documents Show US Government's Flawed "Secret Terrorist-Tracking System"

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Classified Documents Show US Government's Flawed "Secret Terrorist-Tracking System"

Documents obtained by The Intercept show nearly half of government's terrorist suspects have no terrorist affiliation

(Image: The Intercept)

Nearly half of the U.S. government's terrorist suspects have no connection to any known terrorist groups, The Intercept reported on Tuesday.

Publishing two classified, unredacted documents related to the White House's "secret terrorist-tracking system," The Intercept journalists, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux, report that of the 680,000 people listed on the government's widely-shared watchlist, more than 40 percent are defined as having "no recognized terrorist group affiliation." The cumulative amount of people who are in the database for no reason adds up to 280,000 — more than the total number of al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah suspects combined.

The U.S. government adds new names or additional information on existing names to the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) at a rate of 900 records each day, using biometric data like fingerprints, iris scans, and facial recognition in addition to requests for data from various agencies, while the CIA uses its secretive Hydra program to collect additional information on foreign suspects living overseas.

The TSDB is shared among the intelligence community, governments, and law enforcement agencies at the local and international level, as well as with private contractors. The documents are released as the no-fly list hits an all-time high of 47,000, with President Barack Obama adding more names than George W. Bush, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and the head of Lebanon’s parliament.

In 2013, the Obama administration “quietly approved a substantial expansion” of the watchlist system, according to documents leaked to The Intercept earlier this year by a "source within the intelligence community." The guideline for adding names to the list "requires neither ‘concrete facts’ nor ‘irrefutable evidence’ to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist,” the documents stated. It was developed in secret meetings by representatives of the U.S. intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies, including the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, and FBI.

Many of the people on the list are individuals who live or have recently applied for citizenship in the U.S., while the baseless adding of names has been known by government watchdogs for years. On Monday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and other national offices for illegally denying citizenship to Muslim immigrants, using a secret "national security concern" classification to deny or delay their applications for lawful residency and adding them to the watchlist without their knowledge instead.

"In 2013 alone, the watchlisting community nominated 468,749 individuals to the TSDB," the ACLU complaint states. "In 2009, the Government Accountability Office found that 35 percent of the nominations to the TSDB were outdated, and that tens of thousands of names had been placed on the list without an adequate factual basis."

In a statement released by the National Counterrorism Center, which prepared the TSDB documents, the center called the watchlisting system a "critical layer in our counterrorism defenses" and claimed it was superior to the pre-9/11 tracking process, The Intercept reported.

Despite the troubling revelations of these methods, the TSDB is only one component of a larger database called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), which targets even more people based on even less information than the TSDB, The Intercept said. TIDE shares information with the U.S. intelligence community, units from the Special Operations Command, and domestic law enforcement agencies such as the New York City Police Department and other local departments.

As of 2013, there are more than one million names in the TIDE database. More than 240 "nominations" are processed daily.

In the documents, the government justifies the TIDE and TSDB programs as "necessary for our nation’s counterterrorism mission."

Additional details revealed by The Intercept include:

  • 16,000 people, including 1,200 Americans, have been classified as “selectees” who are targeted for enhanced screenings at airports and border crossings.
  • There are 611,000 men on the main terrorist watchlist and 39,000 women.
  • 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.
  • The top “nominating agencies” responsible for placing people on the government’s watchlists are: the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, told The Intercept “[the] fact that this information can be shared with agencies from the CIA to the NYPD, which are not known for protecting civil liberties, brings us closer to an invasive and rights-violating government surveillance society at home and abroad.”

The CIA and the White House declined to comment on the article. However, Scahill noted this via Twitter just after The Intercept story went live:

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