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What Kind of People Are on the Feds' Terrorist Watchlist Anyway?

Over one-third of the 680,000 suspected terrorists have "no recognized terrorist group affiliation."

The InterceptThe InterceptVia The Intercept comes this immensely clarifying and depressing breakdown of just how many people are in the government's "Terrorist Screening Database," the master list of "known or suspected terrorists" that's shared with state and local law enforcement, government contractors, and foreign states. It also presumably supplies at least the first cut of the 47,000 people unluckly enough to be on the country's "no-fly list" (more on that in a moment).

Stunningly, 40 percent of the people in database—280,000—have "no recognized terrorist group affiliation." And dig this:

Although the Obama administration has repeatedly asserted that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses the most significant external terrorist threat to the United States, the 8,211 people identified as being tied to the group actually represent the smallest category on the list of the top ten recognized terrorist organizations. AQAP is outnumbered by people suspected of ties to the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network (12,491), the Colombia-based FARC (11,275,) and the Somalia-based al-Shabab (11,547).

And what about the "no-fly list," which has emerged as the go-to source for cheap political points after the San Bernardino shooting? Just yesterday, in fact, Barack Obama started the #DoSomething hashtag campaign dissing anyone who thinks people on the list should be able to legally purchase guns. "If you're too dangerous to board a plane, you're too dangerous to buy a gun," argued the president, ignoring the voluminous complaints about the lack of accuracy and due process regarding the list.

The InterceptThe Intercept

The Intercept notes that the number of people on the list has increased tenfold since Obama took office:

The number is also a testament to the Obama administration’s intensified collection of personal information on individuals with suspected links to terrorism. In 2006, CBS News obtained a copy of the no fly list and reported that it included 44,000 names, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and the head of Lebanon’s parliament. Faced with a widespread public backlash, the government cut the list down to just 4,000 names by late 2009....

“You might as well have a blue wand and just pretend there’s magic in it, because that’s what we’re doing with this—pretending that it works,” says former FBI agent Michael German, now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “These agencies see terrorism as a winning card for them. They get more resources. They know that they can wave that card around and the American public will be very afraid and Congress and the courts will allow them to get away with whatever they’re doing under the national security umbrella.”

Remember back when the whole Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) was just getting started and all sorts of pols, pundits, and experts kept talking about finding needles in haystacks? It turns out that Obama's version of GWOT is less about finding more needls and more about creating bigger haystacks.

Read the whole thing here.

Back in 2011, Reason TV talked with Mike German, who's quoted above. A former FBI agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups in the Pacific Northwest, he became a lawyer and worked at the ACLU before joining NYU's Brennan Center. Below, he talks about the threats to civil liberties posed by mass collection of data simply because technology—and the law—allows it.

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  • Pathogen||

    Nobody's innocent.. guilt is just a question of where and when...

  • Hugh Akston||

    And whether you have assets worth confiscating

  • Pathogen||

    The wages of sin sedition is death theft..

  • SQRLSY One||

    Nick G. just earned hisself a that them thar spot on the no-fly list, methinks...

    If ye are a FROG, ah ken imagine just WHY you would be pissed off and pissed on, if'n ye were denied any more flies in yer diet...

    If'n ye are NOT a frog, whazzzzuuuup, no flies fer ye!!!??!? SO WHUT??!?!

    An' FROGS are not AMERIKKKANS, so the do NOT matter!!!! QED!!!

  • __Warren__||

    Some of them have heard the word "terrorist" and seen a picture of a bomb so who knows what they're capable of!

  • commodious spittoon||

    Well, if they're trying to get a gun they're clearly terrorists of *some* sort. QED.

  • Pathogen||

    No one needs 29 methods of travel..

  • __Warren__||

    Or 50 ways to leave your lover.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Or ten lords a-leaping. I ask you!

  • Sigivald||

    The "Watch List" needs scrutiny and overview and skepticism, yes.

    But "Although the Obama administration has repeatedly asserted that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses the most significant external terrorist threat to the United States, the 8,211 people identified as being tied to the group actually represent the smallest category on the list of the top ten recognized terrorist organizations. AQAP is outnumbered by people suspected of ties to the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network (12,491), the Colombia-based FARC (11,275,) and the Somalia-based al-Shabab (11,547)." is ridiculous.

    Yes, there are more people in FARC.

    But FARC doesn't give a flying goddamn about the United States.

    Likewise al-Shahaab is, while perfectly happy to attack the US, more concerned with local insurgency, as is Haqqani.

    Per Wikipedia, "The U.S government believes AQAP to be the most dangerous al-Qaeda branch due to its emphasis on attacking the far enemy and its reputation for plotting attacks on overseas targets".

    So this is actually, you know, pretty reasonable, and it turns out mere numbers don't mean everything.

  • ||

    I think you misinterpreted the paragraph. It's saying that there are more people IN THE DATABASE associated with FARC than there are with AQAP, not that there are more members of FARC in total than in AQAP.

  • The Last American Hero||

    So are people that vote third party in the red section of the chart or are they the "other recognized terror groups".

  • wareagle||

    affiliation or not, clearly they are the "wrong" people.

  • Pro Libertate||

    680,000? If they are all so dangerous, why aren't they getting prosecuted?

  • Copernicus would chip||

    "Stunningly, 40 percent of the people in database—280,000—have "no recognized terrorist group affiliation."

    "Islam' is still available for labeling purposes.

    /ducks and runs away in a serpentine path

  • LarryA||

    "Some of them do, however, have unrecognized terrorist affiliations. Reason subscribers, NRA members, home schoolers, etc."

  • Win Bear||

    But the Obama administration would never stop so low as to admit that. It is better to pretend that they have been labeled for "unknown" reasons.

  • GroundTruth||

    This is the sort of sh*t that the cold war was supposed to keep from coming to the US.

  • Detroit Linguist||

    Yr. humble servant was on the 'selectee' list in the mid-aughts (around 2005 or so) for about six months, as I've mentioned here on occasion. While I could fly, I couldn't print out boarding passes ahead of time, and had to be interviewed both at check-in and again at the gate before boarding.
    As some of you may know, I've been commenting here since it was invented, and I subscribed to Reason the year it began publishing (yes, back in Lanny Friedlander/Bob Poole times), and I even have a book review in a back issue, I think in 1980. So clearly the US DHS is justified in labeling me a terror risk. Just not enough of one to keep me off planes; just enough to piss me off.
    Anyway, I take that to be illustrative of the quality of any of these lists.

  • Not okay||

    The terror watch list is unnecessary except to police. There should've no consequences for being suspected of terrorism. Investigate them or don't.

    I can appreciate that the suspects may exceeds the capabilities to investigate but that's life. Outside of some civil war there's no reason Americans should lose anything without due process.

  • ernestm||

    so you are a terrorist too, I guess.

  • ernestm||

    I was threatened with life imprisonment without trial for being a pacifist. There was no 'due process' lol. They were ready to lock me up and throw away the key just because I opposed the war in Iraq, Vincent Bugliosi read my blogs, and agreed with me. That was my crime, I was labeled a 'known terrorist sympathizer.' Now you expect me to support your rights to buy weapons! NO WAY!

    As far as I concerned YOU are the far worst terrorist sympathizer than me, arguing that terrorists should be allowed to buy weapons.

  • Win Bear||

    It's not quite as simple. Air travel is private transportation. From a libertarian point of view, airlines could refuse to transport you for any reason anyway, so you could lose your ability to travel by air without due process. It is just that the government shouldn't have a right to interfere in such decisions. Of course, because the government subsidizes air travel and also mandates public accommodations, it is already interfering in other ways.

  • ernestm||

    It is totally irrelevant how accurate or long the list is. I am on the terrorist watchlist, and I object that I am able to buy guns. In fact, if republicans support that its own administration should not ban gun purchase from people on the watchlist it created, then it is irrefutably as guilty of terrorism as the people it condemns.

    President Bush himself stated, "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime" (Sept 20, 2001). On that grounds, I, a pacifist seeking only possible legal accountability for war crimes, was threatened with life imprisonment without trial, because I only sought legal investigation into the use of depleted uranium in American military munitions as WMD. Now the same party supports the sale of weapons to known terrorists? Who is more responsible for the death of people by terrorism--me or the republican government? Why am I, who seeks to stop killing and mutilation of innocent infants, not permitted to fly, while known killers on the same list as me can arm themselves? Now the republicans play party politics with human lives. If it will destroy my life, as it has, then the republican party can at least show unity in the war against terrorism itself.

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