The Obama administration has expanded the national terrorist watchlist system by approving broad guidelines over who can be targeted. A leaked copy of the secret government guidebook reveals that to be deemed a “terrorist” target, “irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary.” Both “known” and “suspected” suspects are tracked, and terrorism is so broadly defined that it includes people accused of damaging property belonging to the government or financial institutions. Other factors that can justify inclusion on the watchlist include postings on social media or having a relative already deemed a terrorist. We are joined by investigative reporters Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept. Last week they published the secret U.S. document along with their new article, “The Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: The Obama administration has expanded the national terrorist watchlist system by approving broad guidelines over who can be targeted. Reporting for The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux obtained the government’s secret watchlist from an intelligence source. The guidebook says that to be deemed a terrorist target, quote, “irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary.” Both “known” and “suspected” suspects are tracked, and terrorism is so broadly defined, it includes people accused of damaging property belonging to the government or financial institutions. Other factors that can justify inclusion include postings on social media or having a relative already deemed a terrorist. The guidebook’s criteria also apply to the no-fly list and selectee list. In a statement, Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union said, quote, “Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists … 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.”
AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! invited the National Counterterrorism Center to join us on our program; they declined our request. A spokesperson sent us a statement that read in part: “Without speaking to the authenticity of the document referenced in the article, the watchlisting system is an important part of our layered defense to protect the United States against future terrorist attacks. … Before an American may be included on a watchlist, additional layers of scrutiny are applied to ensure that the listing is appropriate,” they said.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept. Their new article is headlined “The Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist.” Jeremy is also the producer and writer of the documentary film, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, and author of a book by the same name.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Jeremy, first, how did you get a hold of this book?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, we’re not going to discuss sources. Or, you know, the Obama administration likes to talk about sources and methods, and ironically now, journalists have to be very, very careful in protecting our sources and how we get information, so we’re not going to talk about the way that we got the document. But the document itself is something that has been fiercely and actively kept secret by the Obama administration, and the principles upon which this document is based were fiercely guarded, as well, by the Bush administration. In fact, Eric Holder went so far as to say, in a sworn affidavit in a court suit that was brought by an American citizen challenging their watchlisting status, that it’s a state secrets privilege covered, and that if this were to be released, it would provide a roadmap, essentially, for undermining the watchlisting system.
What we have here is tantamount to a system that’s sort of like a global stop-and-frisk program, because the standard for putting people on a list where they are going to be designated as known or suspected terrorists—the acronym is KST; you’re a KST, a known or suspected terrorist—and there’s no way of determining, if you’re a law enforcement official and you get this information, whether there’s actual evidence against someone to suggest that they’re involved with a terror plot or their phone number popped up in the phone of someone who is suspected of potentially being a terror suspect. The standard that they use to put people on this is what’s called “reasonable suspicion.” We talked to former FBI agents, one of whom was a Los Angeles police officer for several decades, and he said, you know, “If I can’t find reasonable suspicion to stop anyone I want, then I’m not a good cop.” And so, what they’re essentially doing is saying that if someone, not based on concrete facts or irrefutable evidence, but if someone within the intelligence community thinks someone is suspicious—maybe they’re posting something on Facebook, maybe they’re posting something on Twitter, that they think indicate that they have sympathies in favor of some sort of a jihadist group—let’s go ahead and designate them as a suspected terrorist.
Imagine what could happen, the implication of this, for all sorts of communities. But the way that Muslims, Arabs, Pakistanis, others in our society are targeted in this post-9/11 world, imagine if you are an Arab man and you have a beard, and you are driving your car in a rural community somewhere in the South in the United States, and you have a busted tail light, and a sheriff’s deputy pulls you over at night because of the busted tail light. The sheriff goes up, he takes your license, he goes back, and he runs it. He sees that he has someone that has been designated by the U.S. intelligence community as a known or suspected terrorist. What kind of danger is this individual going to be in now? And let’s say that it’s a case of mistaken identity, that he’s not actually a known or suspected terrorist, but he has the same name as someone, or his number popped up in someone else’s phone. The likelihood of that sheriff thinking he has a suicide bomber in the car is probably pretty high. And so, this could have real-life implications for the liberty and also life of people.
But in a broader sense, this designation can secretly be used in court proceedings. It can prevent you from getting employment. You can be designated as a representative of a terrorist organization, even if you are not affiliated with that terrorist organization. You can have a designation of being a part of a terrorist group, even if the U.S. government has not designated that group as a terrorist organization. The short of it is this, Amy: When you take the reasonable suspicion standard, which is like stop and frisk, where you say, “Oh, these kids look like they’re hanging out, up to no good. I’m going to go and frisk all of them right now,” when you take that, and then you look at this wide-ranging definition of what constitutes terrorist activity, there is so much room open for massive violations of civil liberties.
The other component of this that Ryan and I discovered that I think bears a lot of scrutiny is that all of these principles, in this previously undisclosed watchlisting guidance, were shared in some form or another with at least—it’s 22 foreign governments, with a network of private contractors. The NCTC would not tell us the corporate entities that are given this information, nor would they tell us the foreign governments. Our government is sharing this information, including designating its own citizens as known or suspected terrorists, with all of these foreign states and with private entities, private contractors, and not sharing what amounts to a parallel shadow legal system where we’re not allowed to know the rules. We’re not allowed to know what it would be that we would do that would have our government secretly designate us as a known or suspected terrorist.
AARON MATÉ: Ryan, who decides the people that get on this list? And what are the implications for combating crime, having such broad criteria for inclusion?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, the watchlisting community is composed, as Jeremy said, of foreign governments, private contractors, as well as a broad range of executive departments and agencies—obviously, CIA, FBI, you know, local law enforcement. All of them sort of work together to share information about people, known or suspected terrorists, and sort of disseminate that information broadly.
The law enforcement impacts and the counterterrorism impacts are actually really important to look at, because for years this system has been criticized in internal government reports, in the media, for gathering too much information, basically creating a haystack, a huge haystack, which makes it much more difficult to find the needle. So, basically, you have people within the watchlisting community complaining that they’re drowning in information. This is a criticism that’s surfaced again and again for years.
AMY GOODMAN: How many people are on the list?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, it depends on what list you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the Terrorism Screening Database, which is the watchlist, it’s increased to several hundred thousand people over recent years. The TIDE database, which is the government’s largest repository for terrorism information—obviously, they keep these numbers secret—is much larger than the actual watchlist. And that information is kept classified.
AMY GOODMAN: The number, Jeremy, at the time of 9/11—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —on the list?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, just, yeah, to give you a sense of how much this has grown, there was no such thing as the no-fly list when 9/11 happened. There were 16 people that were designated what they called “no transport,” meaning that they were going to be prevented from flying on aircraft in the United States or coming to the United States. There were 16 people on that list. And now it’s exploded, and it’s reached its highest point under President Obama.
So, if you sort of think of it, what Ryan was describing is an inverse pyramid. You have this classified database that has all sorts of fragmentary information on people. It could be phone intercepts. It could be text messages, metadata, identities of people from a wide range of sources, some of them clandestine. So, in other words, the CIA or the NSA has hacked into a system or has accessed a database. And they have all of this information in there. Then, from that, they drill it down to what is traditionally known as the watchlist, as Ryan said, the Terrorist Screening Database, the TSDB. And everyone on that list is what is considered to be watchlisted, and it’s well into the hundreds of thousands. Then you drill down from that, and you have a selectee list. And those are people—and this has happened to me repeatedly—who are pulled aside for additional screening at the airport. And then you have the actual no-fly list. And the U.S. government, it’s been years since they gave anything resembling hard statistics on how many people are in each of these databases.
But when you have that kind of an encounter, if you are stopped because you’re on one of these lists, and you’re pulled aside, one of the things that we discovered in this document is that the so-called screeners, the people that are going to encounter you, either in person or they have some kind of digital contact with you—you’re applying for a visa, you’re applying for federal employment, or you’re applying for a grant from USAID, which is one of the more scandalous sort of little nuggest in this piece, that USAID is part of the system feeding intelligence back to entities like the CIA, the NSA and others, that have to do with their grants that are supposedly about promoting democracy—you know, USAID has a long history of working as a front for the CIA, of course, but, you know, this part of it wasn’t known. And USAID confirmed to us that they do in fact participate in this program.
AMY GOODMAN: So, wait, explain what they would do.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, someone goes in—I mean, this is according to what USAID also told us. I mean, in the document, it says that USAID has its own intelligence analysts that are stationed with the watchlisting community that is governing this whole system and that they are collecting data from people that are applying for grants, for contractors that they’re working with. I mean, of course they’re going to do diligence, you know, to make sure that the people that they’re giving grants to are not terrorists. I mean, there’s nothing scandalous about that. The idea, though, that USAID is then taking this information, that it gets from people who are applying for something having to do with, you know, agriculture in India, and then translating that into information that could be used to designate people as known or suspected terrorists, means that USAID is not some kind of impartial pro-democracy entity, that it’s actively engaged in a system of putting people on watchlists that are based on flimsy legal standards of evidence.
But the point I was getting at here is, among the items that can be copied, collected, noted are the condition of books in your car, whether they’re dog-eared and worn, are there notations in it; your E-ZPass; veterinary information, including the electronic chips in your pets; your health insurance information, your health cards. We’ve gone through and looked at this over and over. The message that’s sent to people who are so-called screeners is basically: There’s no such thing as the Fourth Amendment, if you have someone who’s on one of these lists. We want—take it all. Collect it all. I mean, this should be a scandal in Congress. The tea party should be up in arms about this for all that they’ve said about the TSA and, you know, Obama who’s like Chairman Mao in power. Where are they on this issue? Where are the tea party senators and congresspeople on the issue that we are essentially empowering a whole network of people, including private contractors, to actively violate our Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure.
RYAN DEVEREAUX: And one thing to add there—Jeremy’s talking about encounters here—while this system may not be perfect for countering terrorism, it’s very, very useful for creating situations in which law enforcement, in which FBI agents can have somebody who’s sitting in a room waiting to travel, waiting to get on their way, and they’re there. The FBI can now use this person as a potential informant and in an attempt to flip them. There was a huge report that came out last week about the FBI using informants for its counterterrorism cases. This sort of system creates situations in which people have to deal with law enforcement and have to face the governmnet.
AARON MATÉ: Well, in April, Democracy Now! spoke with Naveed Shinwari, one of the four American Muslims who filed a lawsuit accusing the FBI of unjustly placing them on the no-fly list and trying to coerce them to spy on their community. He explained what happened to him.
NAVEED SHINWARI: Late February of 2012, I got—I was trying to obtain a boarding pass in Dubai. My flight was from Kabul to Dubai and then to Houston. And I was denied boarding pass in Dubai. I was told that I had to go outside and meet with the immigration, U.S. immigrations, or the embassy, consulate. I had to obtain a temporary visa. And my mother and I, we went out, out of the airport. And then I was interrogated by two FBI agents for roughly about four hours, and I was told to—I was pressured to give them everything that I knew in order to go back home. And then they will—the more that I give them, the better chances of me coming back home that I had.
AARON MATÉ: That’s Naveed Shinwari speaking on Democracy Now! Ryan, in June, there was a court ruling saying that the no-fly list is unconstitutional.
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Yeah, and wholly ineffective. Basically, what the judge ruled here was that the process for getting off of these lists was unconstitutional and wholly ineffective, and that’s because there’s essentially no way for you to confirm whether you’re on a list, and the process by which you get off is done internally. You just basically submit a form through the Department of Homeland Security, and that’s bounced around within these agencies. Now, if there are multiple agencies who have contributed information on your file, then all of those agencies have to agree that you should be removed. And when you’re removed, you don’t get any notification whatsoever.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the threat-based upgrade, the TBU?
RYAN DEVEREAUX: Yeah, this was one of the most striking elements of this guidance, to us, in reviewing it. Basically, the threat-based upgrade is an amazing power vested in a senior White House administration official who has not been elected to their position, and it affords that official the authority to upgrade the watchlisting status of an entire category of people for up to 72 hours without any—without conferring with any of their peers. And then that upgrade can be continued for another 30 days upon review by a circle—Obama’s basically inner circle. And that upgrade can continue on a sort of rolling status. It can be renewed until the intelligence community determines that whatever threat is out there, whatever threat that they’ve detected, is gone. Now, we asked the government about what constitutes a category, but we were given no information. We do know that this has been used, though, and it seemed to be directed at people from a given area, of a certain age range.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Like military-age males in Yemen. It’s worth pointing out, too, you know, one of the greatest, unelected, non-Senate-confirmed power grabs in recent American history was enacted by John Brennan. John Brennan—when Obama was first elected, he wanted Brennan to be the CIA director. And some Democrats actually had a spine back then and said, you know, “Because of his involvement in the Bush torture apparatus and some of his positions on torture and other things, we’re going to hold up that nomination.” So they created a post specifically for John Brennan, so that he could effectively serve as the czar in charge of all of these policies, when it came to counterterrorism, homeland security and others, and basically was running the show. He became, you know, the drone kingpin and all of these things. This position was created essentially by John Brennan for John Brennan, this threat-based upgrade, so he then gave himself, because he was in charge of doing the watchlisting guidance and coordinating it—he gave himself this power to just unilaterally upgrade an entire category of people. I mean, and as Ryan said, we tried to understand how they define “category” in this, and they wouldn’t say to us. The best that we have on the record is Pete Williams of NBC News, in a follow-up story about this—
AMY GOODMAN: Former spokesperson for the Pentagon.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Former spokesperson for the Pentagon, right, Pete Williams. But he actually did a pretty solid report on this, and he—it’s a minor note in his story, but he’s the one who said, the specific example, that it could be males of a certain age from a certain area of Yemen. So, and as Ryan said, there is nothing democratic about this process at all. Courts are not involved with this. There is no review of your watchlist status by an outside body. It’s all internal oversight.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we have 30 seconds. How do you get off of this list, if you’re constantly stopped, if you understand you’re on this list?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, if you would ask the government, they would say, “Well, we have this thing called the DHS TRIP program, and if you think that you may be on this list, you submit it. And trust us. We’ll review it, and if your status is inappropriate, you’re not going to get stopped anymore in the airport.” In reality, it’s almost impossible to get off of this list. I mean, I don’t want to talk about future reporting that Ryan and I are doing, but we’re staying on this beat, and we’ve learned information that indicates that even if you think you’re removed from the list, you may end up on another part of the list. I mean, once you get sucked into the vortex of the watchlisting system, it’s almost impossible to come back up for air. You’re stuck.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux, thank you so much, staff reporters with The Intercept. Their new article, “The Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist.” When we come back, “With Liberty to Monitor All: How Large-Scale U.S. Surveillance Is Harming Journalism, Law, and American Democracy.” Stay with us.