Leaked documents obtained by the Intercept from an intelligence community source reveals chilling details on government tracking of “terrorism” suspects, including the use of biometric data and loose standards for placing people on the watchlist.
According a report by the Intercept, of the 680,000 people on the terrorist watchlist, the government classifies some 40 percent as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” In other words, the federal government tracks some 280,000 people without any proven links to terrorism.
Former FBI Special Agent David Gomez told the Intercept that the watchlisting system is “revving out of control.”
“If everything is terrorism, then nothing is terrorism,” he said.
The documents also reveal that the “no-fly” list ballooned ten-fold since Pres. Obama took office to an all-time high of 47,000 people as of August 2013.
The term “watchlist” actually refers to the Terrorist Screening Database, (TSDB). According to the Intercept the TSDB is “an unclassified pool of information shared across the intelligence community and the military, as well as local law enforcement, foreign governments, and private contractors.”
According to the government’s watchlisting guidelines, published by The Intercept last month, officials don’t need ‘concrete facts’ or ‘irrefutable evidence’ to secretly place someone on the list—only a vague and elastic standard of ‘reasonable suspicion.’
Hina Shamsi, the head of the ACLU’s National Security Project, reviewed the criteria for 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,” she said. “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.”
The government also keeps another database, and it takes even less suspicion to get a person place on it and under the gaze of federal snoops. According to the Intercept, most people on the watchlist start out on a classified list know as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE).
The TIDE database actually allows for targeting people based on far less evidence than the already lax standards used for placing people on the watchlist. A more expansive—and invasive—database, TIDE’s information is shared across the U.S. intelligence community, as well as with commando units from the Special Operations Command and with domestic agencies such as the New York City Police Department.
According to the released documents, the feds monitor 320,000 additional people under the larger TIDE database. That puts the number of individuals on under the government microscope at over 1 million. The Intercept reports that as of the Summer of 2013, the watchlist included 5,000 Americans, with another 15,800 targeted in TIDE.
And the feds share all of this information with other agencies including state and local law enforcement, through fusion centers and other channels.
This includes biometric data.
The Intercept report reveals the government “covertly collects and analyzes a wide range of personal information about those individuals –including facial images, fingerprints, and iris scans.” According to the leaked documents, the main terrorism database holds 860,000 biometric files on 144,000 people. That includes “half a million facial images, nearly a quarter of a million fingerprints and 70,000 iris scans.”
“We’re getting into Minority Report territory when being friends with the wrong person can mean the government puts you in a database and adds DMV photos, iris scans, and face recognition technology to track you secretly and without your knowledge,” Shamsi, told the Intercept. “The fact that this information can be shared with agencies from the CIA to the NYPD, which are not known for protecting civil liberties, brings us closer to an invasive and rights-violating government surveillance society at home and abroad.”
The government collects and stores all of this information without probable cause and without a warrant. When it comes to chasing “terrorists,” the Fourth Amendment does not apply. Many Americans enthusiastically go along with illegal spying, allowing their fear of a “terrorist threat” to override any concern about privacy rights or constitutional fidelity. But according to many former members of the intelligence community, all of this snooping and spying doesn’t even work as advertised.
“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,” former FBI agent Michael German, and current fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice said. “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.”