Are You On A Government Watchlist?

New details on government watchlists and the no-fly list are cause for concern.

The prospect of being on a government watchlist is one that both tantalizes and strikes fear into the minds of most Americans. Sure, you may read articles on websites that are critical of U.S. policy, participate in protests with community members, post rants on social media, and have an extreme dislike for politicians – but is that really enough to warrant being placed on a list of potential threats?

More Americans may find themselves asking this question now that new details on the government’s terrorism watchlists and no-fly list have emerged.

Last Wednesday The Intercept released a 2013 document from the National Counterterrorism Center which details the rules for placing individuals on terrorism watchlists, including the no fly list. The 166-page document details what the government defines as terrorism, which includes everything from assassination and hostage-taking to destruction of government property or computers, and any act that is “dangerous” to property or intended to influence government through intimidation.

The document covers two lists: the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), and the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). Chapters of the document include information on what triggers placement on the lists, and what type of information officials are to collect when encountering suspected individuals. Placement on the TIDE or TSDB must be based on “articulable intelligence or information”. The document also says “single source information” such as posts on social media sites “should not automatically be discounted”. Under the guidelines if you are suspected of terrorism ties your family and “associates” can also be placed on the list.

Another worrisome detail of the document is known as “threat-based expedited upgrade.” This upgrade is unilaterally initiated by the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism and allows for whole “categories of people” to be placed on the list based on intelligence that a certain type of person may commit terrorism. If the upgrade is approved by senior officials it could potentially last “until the threat no longer exists.”  The lack of oversight creates a situation where individuals could be placed on the list and left on indefinitely.

The guidelines also state that after a suspect has been acquitted of terrorism-related crimes they can remain on the list, even after death. The authorities state that it is common practice for terrorists to use names of the deceased as aliases in an attempt to go unnoticed. For this reason you may find yourself on a watchlist in the afterlife.

Up until now little has been known about the procedures behind the No-Fly list and Watchlists. As the Intercept notes, Attorney General Eric Holder has previously invoked state secrets privilege to keep the details of the lists hidden, stating, “The Watchlisting Guidance, although unclassified, contains national security information that, if disclosed … could cause significant harm to national security.”

Despite the governments best efforts, victories in court have affirmed the rights of Americans. Earlier this year Rahinah Ibrahim became the first person to successfully have their name removed from the no-fly list. Ibrahim had been detained and questioned at San Franciso International Airport in 2005, after being accused of having ties to a Malaysian terror group. Even with a victory in court however, only scant details were allowed to be released by the judge.

In June of this year another blow was dealt to the governments no-fly list when a federal judge in Oregon ruled that the process citizens must undergo to attempt to remove themselves was unconstitutional. The court ruled the process for removing oneself “falls far short of satisfying the requirements of due process.” The American Civil Liberties Union represented 13 American citizens who had been barred from flying. In August 2013 the same court ruled the lists violated an individuals constitutionally protected right to travel. Previously the U.S. government has claimed that flying was not a right. The judge also stated that placement on the lists smeared the individuals as potential terrorists thus violating their constitutional right to be free from reputational harm.

The government must now draft new rules for including individuals on the no-fly list, including alerting individuals as to whether or not they are on such a list. Currently the government neither confirms nor denies placement on the list.  Equally disturbing is the fact that the FBI (and presumably other branches of the government) seem to be interested in coercing those on the lists into being informants. The ACLU documents several cases where the FBI told individuals they could fly home if they would tell the government where the bad guys were. The agency has even offered payment and removal from the list in exchange for informing.

Since 9/11 the no-fly list has grown to include tens of thousands of names. As recent court battles and the leaked document highlight, government agencies are operating with little oversight, using vague, and broad terminology to designate Americans as “known or suspected terrorists.” These designations can have disastrous affects on an individuals life. Despite the recent rulings and a renewed public debate on the lists, it is likely the U.S. government will continue to fight for the right to place Americans on the list and deny them their right to travel.

The ACLU has created a “Know Your Rights” guide in the event you ever find yourself being denied the right to fly.