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Leaked Rulebook Reveals Loophole-Ridden Criteria for Placing Individuals on Terrorist Watchlists

Graphic from 2013 Watchlisting Guidance published by The Intercept

A secret United States government rulebook for placing “known terrorists” and “suspected terrorists” on government watchlists, including the No-Fly List, has been published by The Intercept. It was obtained from an unnamed “intelligence source.”

The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance” [PDF] from the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) contains the criteria by which officials can blacklist individuals for “terrorism.” It also reveals some glaring loopholes, which give officials wide discretion to place people on lists who are probably entirely innocent.

The watchlist commonly referred to in the guidance is derived from data stripped of classified information and put in the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) managed by the Terrorist Screening Center of the FBI. There also is a Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database. This is where the TSDB gets its data.

TIDE is the government’s largest database, and it is controlled by the NCTC and the information is from military and intelligence sources from all over the world.

Much of the watchlisting guidance is vague, giving officials wide discretion to make designations. As Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept report, the guidance requires the the “nominator”—the “federal department or agency that has information to indicate that an individual meets the criteria for a known or suspected terrorist”—to meet a “reasonable suspicion standard.”

The “totality of circumstances” can form the basis of deciding if “articulable intelligence or information” meets the standard. “Rational inferences from those facts” can be made to determine if a person really is “known or suspected to be or has knowingly engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism and/or terrorism activities.”

“Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit,” the guidance states. In other words, confirmation bias, prejudices or hunches can be presumed to play a key role in selecting individuals for placement on watchlists.

“As circumstances permit” can be the excuse or justification for placing a person on the list with a very minimal amount of information.

“Immediate family of suspected terrorists,” according to Scahill and Devereaux, such as “their spouses, children, parents or siblings,” may be placed on a list “without any suspicion that they themselves are engaged in terrorist activity.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."