War on Terror

Contain Your Shock: Huge Numbers of People on Watch Lists Have No Connection to Terrorist Groups

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This will not come as a surprise to Reason regulars: More than 40 percent of the people on the United States federal government terrorism watch lists have no discernable connection to any terrorist group.

280,000 out of 680,000 people on the list of those whom authorities are keeping their eyes on and pulling aside for further examination at airports and border crossings have no actual connection to terrorist groups. The analysis comes from journalists Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux at The Intercept. They just recently exposed the complicated yet also terribly vague guide the federal government uses to put people on the list. Now they've gotten their hands on a classified document detailing the National Counterterrorism Center's (NCTC) list of accomplishments for 2013 and have crunched the numbers to provide the lovely graph below:

The Intercept

Some of the other interesting details:

  • The number of people added to the no-fly list has skyrocketed under President Barack Obama by a factor of 10, to a high of 47,000.
  • The second-highest concentration of people within the United States suspected of potential terrorism and added to the watch list resides in Dearborn, Mich. (population: 96,000). Coincidentally, Dearborn has the highest concentration of Arab-American citizens in the country.
  • The government adds either new names or new data about people already on the watch list at a rate of 900 records each day.

There are a lot of different numbers about the actual size of the list. The Associated Press has reported the list has seen 1.5 million names added, but a source told The Intercept there's some confusion between new names being added and new data about people already on the list being added.

But the first thing this report for 2013 (pdf) describes as an "accomplishment" is adding its one millionth person to its database:

On 28 June 2013, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) passed a milestone of one million persons in TIDE. While NCTC's Directorate of Terrorist Identities (DTI) seeks to create only as many person records as are necessary for our nation's counterterrorism mission, this number is a testament to DTI's hard work and dedication over the past 2.5 years.

It's a monument to the twisted incentives that drive bureaucracies. Having a watch list of a million people is considered an accomplishment even though it contains hundreds of thousands of people with no known ties to terrorist groups.

Read the latest story here. Below, Reason's Nick Gillespie interviewed Devereaux about their last report detailing the guiding document for the watch lists:

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  1. I’m shocked it’s only 40%.

  2. How many are Juggalos?

    1. When I was 12 I thought Fat Sweaty Betty and The Neden Game were hilarious. Would that get me on the list?

      1. It just did…..

  3. If we actually did have one million people engaged in support of terrorism in the U.S.A., there’d be real terrorist acts happening all over the place – as opposed to those fake acts which are instigated, planned, and stopped just short of execution, all by the federal TLAs themselves.

  4. I bet at least 90% of those who are “affiliated” with terrorist groups probably did no more than visit a web page once or twice. This list is absurd; kinda like our entire security kabuki.

  5. More than 40 percent of the people on the United States federal government terrorism watch lists have no discernable connection to any terrorist group.

    That statistic terrifies me. Wait a minute. That makes the 40% themselves a terrorist group.

  6. Brasilllllll…..

    1. Kurtzmann: [on Buttle] You see? The population census has got him down as “dormanted.” Uh, the Central Collective Storehouse computer has got him down as “deleted.”
      Sam Lowry: Hang on.
      [goes to a computer terminal]
      Kurtzmann: Information Retrieval has got him down as “inoperative.” And there’s another one – security has got him down as “excised.” Administration has got him down as “completed.”
      Sam Lowry: He’s dead.

  7. “Coincidentally, Dearborn has the highest concentration of Arab-American citizens in the country.”

    And?

  8. Could it be that instead of the list being useful to stop terrorism its useful to continue the work it creates?

    We remind our manager when everything is a priority then there is no priority.

    1. And actual sighting of an Iron Law in the wild! Well done.

  9. Perhaps I’m missing something, but is there a reason for the random punctuation and Japanese in the red part of the graph, other than to encourage the graph to not be taken seriously?

    1. It’s an emoticon of a person shrugging.

      1. Yeah, I got that.

  10. FWIW I was once on that list. For a period of six months or so in 2004 I was on the ‘selectee’ list. I could fly, but I couldn’t print out boarding passes at home, and had to be interviewed at check-in, and again at the gate. For every flight.

    I submitted a formal protest on the TSA’s website and it went away. Months later I got a letter from them assuring me I had never been on the list. I should have saved the boarding passes with SSSS printed on them.

    Disguised as a mild-mannered Linguistics Professor, and IT Security and Privacy Professional I apparently led a secret life as something or other.

    1. Privacy Professional eh! You don’t have something to hide… do you?

  11. Leave it to the government to do this in a clumsy way, but 400,000 people with known connections to terrorists is rather startling. I suppose some consist of “Once gave money to a Hamas-linked ‘charity'” or “His brother went to fight in Syria,” but still. Wouldn’t it make more sense to get warrants and investigate the hell out of these people?

    I agree that it’s absurd for the government to simply secretly decide that some people can’t fly. If they want to fly, fine, just put them on the “Extra-Thorough Pre-Flight Inspection” list.

  12. Apparently we have more terrorists in this country than the rest of the planet does.

  13. I’m safe from this. My neighborhood monitor said I was too dumb to conspire and the District Commissar said he was right.

  14. Sounds like a very good plan to me dude.

    http://www.AnonWorld.tk

    1. You just hit the list, AnonoBot.

      … Hobbit

  15. “The number of people added to the no-fly list has skyrocketed under President Barack Obama by a factor of 10, to a high of 47,000.”

    I’m too tired to do heavy number crunching, but with a no-fly list of 680,000, something about those other numbers doesn’t make sense.

    1. moments later I think I figured it out: “No-fly” is a subset of “Watch”

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