The Obama administration has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist, according to a key government document obtained by The Intercept.
“Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists, the government has built a vast system based on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future,” says Hina Shamsi, the head of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “On that dangerous theory, the government is secretly blacklisting people as suspected terrorists and giving them the impossible task of proving themselves innocent of a threat they haven’t carried out.”
Until 2001, the government did not prioritize building a watchlist system. On 9/11, the government’s list of people barred from flying included just 16 names. Today, the no fly list has swelled to tens of thousands of “known or suspected terrorists” (the guidelines refer to them as KSTs).
In 2012, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report that bluntly noted there was no agency responsible for figuring out “whether watchlist-related screening or vetting is achieving intended results.”
The nomination system appears to lack meaningful checks and balances. Although government officials have repeatedly said there is a rigorous process for making sure no one is unfairly placed in the databases, the guidelines acknowledge that all nominations of “known terrorists” are considered justified unless the National Counterterrorism Center has evidence to the contrary. In a recent court filing, the government disclosed that there were 468,749 KST nominations in 2013, of which only 4,915 were rejected–a rate of about one percent. The rulebook appears to invert the legal principle of due process, defining nominations as “presumptively valid.”