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According to the report, the database already contains more than 15,000 names, all whom could be tracked for years or decades to come. (Photo: HetSpul/flickr/cc)

US Adding Names to Foreign Fighter Watchlist 'Like a Ticking Odometer'

Citing fears of ISIS, intelligence agencies are actively placing thousands of Europeans into a secret database at a nearly constant rate

Jon Queally, staff writer

The U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) is adding the names and associated data of European citizens to a secretive watchlist of what it considers potential terrorists at such a rapid rate that one official decribed it "like a ticking odometer."

Quoted in an article by the Washington Post's Greg Miller on Tuesday, an unnamed former U.S. intelligence official described how the NCTC—citing the threat of Europeans who may have travelled to foreign battlefields, particularly in Syria and Iraq—is actively placing thousands of people into the database nearly constantly, sometimes with (and often without) the full knowledge of European governments or their intelligence agencies. According to the report, the database already contains more than 15,000 names.

Miller specifically reports on the ongoing intelligence-sharing between the U.S. and German spy agencies alongside an exploration of the associated political tensions such cooperation generates in the wake of revelations made possible by Edward Snowden about the degree to which the NSA spied on the German people, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In brief summary, Miller's reporting focuses on how the realities of counter-terrorism efforts and fears of German citizens or residents with affiliations with jihadist groups like the Islamic State have compelled German officials and intelligence agents to move beyond the "residual resentment" of being spied on by the U.S. and once again embrace the far-reaching technologies (and less stringent guidelines) practiced by the NSA.

According to the report:

As the flow of fighters into Syria surged last year, senior U.S. officials made a series of visits to Europe, and CIA station chiefs were told that getting details on foreign fighters from their European counterparts had become “the number one priority,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official said.

Most of the data has been obtained merely by asking, the former official said. But U.S. spy agencies have also stolen such information from reluctant counterparts, according to the official, who said that “in some cases we swipe it.”

At the NCTC, the database of foreign fighters is revised upward almost constantly, officials said, like a ticking odometer. Records on specific identities are filled out by teams of analysts sifting through the torrent of social-media postings from Syria, as well as the vast repositories of data extracted from Google, Facebook and other companies under PRISM and other programs revealed by Snowden.

Germany has turned over information on all of the approximately 550 departed fighters it has identified, although officials said there are undoubtedly many more they don’t yet know about. In doing so, Germany has essentially marked its departed citizens as surveillance targets for U.S. spy agencies, if not more. One German official described with dread a scenario in which a citizen identified for the Americans is killed in a U.S. strike.

In another striking admission expressed in the article, another unnamed intelligence official—described as being "involved in producing classified assessments on the Syria threat"—talks about how the number of people being added to the list means that tracking these individuals across Europe and beyond will likely become a project for many years into the future. 

"We’re looking at this as a decadal issue," the official said. "Even if the numbers stopped growing today — if we only had the 15,000 — you’re still looking at a global issue that is going to carry on for a number of years and that is going to test the bandwidth and resources not only of us, but our foreign partners."

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