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Unlocking the Mystery Behind the Government's Terrorist Watch List

Posted  July 24, 2014

By Jason Enzler

For over a decade, the government has kept secret how it decides who should be included in the terrorist watch list system.  That all changed yesterday when The Intercept, an internet publication created by a group of intrepid journalists, published a 166 page set of guidelines, which finally unlocks the mystery behind how the government tries to catalogue suspected terrorists.  The contents are sure to raise some eye brows, but the message is clear: the government has made it relatively easy for anyone to be watch listed and all but impossible to be removed.

The guidelines define terrorism so broadly that it would include destruction of government property or damaging computers at financial institutions.  “Reasonable suspicion,” whatever that is, is all that is required to determine if someone is a threat.  “Concrete facts” are not required in order to place someone on the list.  According to The Intercept article releasing the guidelines, it is such a “confounding and convoluted system filled with exceptions to its own rules” that the government can watch list people “if they are suspected of being a suspected terrorist” or “suspected of associating with people who are suspected of terrorism.”  And once someone is placed on the list, it can be virtually impossible to be removed.  Being acquitted of a terrorism-related crime will not result in removal from the list.  In fact, the guidelines allow for a person to be watch listed even after that person has died.

The watch list system has swept up thousands of Americans and foreigners alike, including prominent politicians and even small children.  One has to assume that some of these people have been wrongly caught up in the system since the guidelines are so broad and allow for so much interpretation and speculation.  But as The Intercept points out, this is not the only concern, important as it is.  The usefulness of the system also decreases as the government expends limited resources tracking people who are not real threats, allowing others, such as the “underwear bomber” (who was on the threat list) to board a plane.

It is not clear whether the disclosure of the guidelines will help anyone petition to be removed from the system, or even to understand the system better.  But a little transparency will be helpful in any battle to change the system to become more useful while preserving our Constitutional rights.