The Obama administration has quietly rewritten the rules on how it goes about designating Americans as terrorists, according to a new report by Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept online investigations project.
The report details how Obama has expanded the terrorist watchlist system, “authorizing a secret process that requires neither ‘concrete facts’ nor ‘irrefutable evidence’ to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist,” according to a key government document obtained by the Intercept.
Instead of actual evidence, all the government needs is the nebulous “reasonable suspicion,” which is considered one of the lowest standards of proof in the American legal system. It’s less than “probable cause,” which is required to make an arrest.
Greenwald, a former investigative reporter for the U.K.-based Guardian who broke the Edward Snowden story about NSA spying on Americans, left the newspaper late last year to start the Intercept.
A 166-page document obtained by Intercept titled “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance” was issued last year by the National Counterterrorism Center. It identifies for the first time the government’s secret rules for placing people on its main terrorist database, as well as the no-fly list and the selectee list, which triggers enhanced screening at airports and border crossings.
The federal government shares its watchlist data with local law enforcement, foreign governments and “private entities,” Intercept reported.
WND reported in 2011 that the Department of Homeland Security issued a new public service announcement encouraging Americans to look at their neighbors with a wary eye and report them to authorities if they see any suspicious behaviors.
The DHS suggests a typical woman terrorist would be a Caucasian in her late 20s or early 30s, with brunette hair, stylish clothing, high heels and a shoulder bag. A man? About the same age, short hair, wearing a shirt and slacks and familiar with technology, as he’s wearing an earpiece cellphone. Also Caucasian. This despite the fact that nearly every major act of terrorism in the United States has been carried out by non-Christians from the Middle East or North Africa.
“If you see something silly, say something: Homeland Security video portrays all ‘terrorists’ as white, middle class males,” said a headline on the counter-terrorist website Jihad Watch recently.
But the new rules, exposed by the Intercept report, allow people to be designated as representatives of terror organizations “without any evidence they are actually connected to such organizations.” At the same time giving a single White House official the unilateral authority to place entire “categories” of people the government is tracking onto the no-fly and selectee lists.
The report also broadens the authority of government officials to “nominate” people to the watchlists based on what is vaguely described as “fragmentary information.”
Both the Obama administration, and the Bush administration before it, have resisted disclosing the criteria for placing names into the databases, even though the guidelines are unclassified.
In May, Attorney General Eric Holder even invoked the state secrets privilege to prevent watchlisting guidelines from being disclosed in litigation launched by an American who was put on the no-fly list. In an affidavit, Intercept reports that Holder called them a “clear roadmap” to the government’s terrorist-tracking apparatus, adding: “The Watchlisting Guidance, although unclassified, contains national security information that, if disclosed … could cause significant harm to national security.”
The document’s definition of “terrorist” activity includes actions that fall far short of bombing or hijacking. The guidelines include destruction of government property and damaging computers used by financial institutions as activities meriting placement on a list. They also define as terrorism any act that is considered “dangerous” to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation. Whether such a broad definition could include, for example, a person taking a picture of a government building, is unclear.
Increasing the scope of what the government considers a “terrorist” can also be counterproductive, as the Intercept report pointed out.
“When resources are devoted to tracking people who are not genuine risks to national security, the actual threats get fewer resources—and might go unnoticed,” the report stated.
“If reasonable suspicion is the only standard you need to label somebody, then it’s a slippery slope we’re sliding down here, because then you can label anybody anything,” David Gomez, a former senior FBI special agent with experience running high-profile terrorism investigations, told Intercept. “Because you appear on a telephone list of somebody doesn’t make you a terrorist. That’s the kind of information that gets put in there.”
The consequences for people who end up on the U.S. government watchlist can be severe.
“Once the government secretly labels you a terrorist or terrorist suspect, other institutions tend to treat you as one,” Intercept reports. “It can become difficult to get a job (or simply to stay out of jail). It can become burdensome — or impossible — to travel. And routine encounters with law enforcement can turn into ordeals.”