FBI watchlist database: To catch the devil, you have to go to hell

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)


obtained FBI documents [PDF] about the "standards for adding and removing names" from a terrorist watchlist, including the fact that a person "may remain on the FBI watchlist even if charges are dropped or a case is dismissed." Charlie Savage at The New York Times then reported the FBI watchlist "database now has about 420,000 names, including about 8,000 Americans." The No Fly List has "about 16,000 people, including about 500 Americans." Watchlisted people may never have their names removed, even if cleared of all suspected criminal or terrorist claims.

In fact you may not even know if you are watchlisted since the "handling codes" to help law enforcement and the following sentences were duplicated like a mantra throughout: Unauthorized disclosure of terrorist watchlist information is prohibited. Do not advise this individual that they may be on a terrorist watchlist. Timothy Healy, the director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, told the Times, it's "not feasible for the government to reveal who was on the list because intelligence sources could be revealed." In regard to people getting their names off the list, former Homeland Security assistant secretary Stewart Baker said, the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard is different from the courtroom. Being held up for extra questioning and missing a flight is not the same as going to prison.

According to the FBI memos, a person cannot be watchlisted based on a "hunch" of being a national security threat. There must be at least "one source of corroboration" and particularly "derogatory information" connecting that person to terrorist activities. Page 62 gives the following definition:

Terrorism and Terrorist Activities -are acts which a) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure which may be a violation of U.S. law; and b) appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, assassination, kidnapping, or hostage-taking."

Okay let's roll with that. When you think of nuns, do "threats to national security" or "terrorists" immediately jump to mind? The ACLU discovered that a peace group made up of nuns who protested the war by silently standing vigil were secretly being spied upon. So were the nuns watchlisted based on "articulable factual basis" of possible criminal and national threat activity, or the definition of terrorism?

No. In fact the Justice Department Inspector General (IG) concluded "improper FBI spying investigations were frequently opened based upon 'factually weak' justifications" and FBI agents incorrectly watchlisted some U.S. citizens for "potential crimes" like trespassing or vandalism which the IG said, "may not commonly be considered as terrorism." Information collected by the FBI in one case had "no relationship to any violent activities much less to terrorism" and still others were added for "nonviolent acts of civil disobedience that were labeled 'Acts of Terrorism'." Yet the FBI claims there are strict rules and processes followed before adding names to a watchlist.

After analyzing about 2,500 pages of FBI documents, the EFF discovered it takes about 2.5 years after the FBI commits an intelligence violation before it is reported to the Intelligence Oversight Board. The EFF reported on "serious misconduct by FBI agents including lying in declarations to courts, using improper evidence to obtain grand jury subpoenas, and accessing password-protected files without a warrant." The FBI has been "chastised" for lying about surveillance records.

The FBI documents state the standards for watchlisting a person cannot be based on "a single source of information from unsolicited tips such as walk-ins, write-ins, or call-ins, unless the subject meets the reasonable suspicion standard." Yet, according to Mother Jones, the "FBI follows up on literally every single call, email, or other terrorism-related tip it receives for fear of missing a clue."

All those ridiculous "suspicious reports" flooding fusion centers and databases will only get worse, since the 2011 FBI Domestic Surveillance Manual expanded the feds' spying power, turning 14,000 FBI agents into a free-for-all dumpster diving brigade. Probable cause or the need to be suspected of actual wrongdoing is no longer required before the FBI has the freedom to spy on your life. The manual gives agents the right "to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention." It's not about being formally investigated, it's more like finding the dirt to flip someone as an informant.

Flipping them may include "terms of entrapment" or "dark side" tactics such as a Domain Management data-mining system which maps ethnic and religious demographics. The FBI reported, the Domain Management methodology was "designed to achieve a comprehensive understanding of a geographic or substantive area of responsibility." Well now the FBI "maintains a roster of 15,000 spies, some paid as much as $100,000 per case," Mother Jones reported. While blackmail flipping via "threats or coercion" to gain a informant is "officially denied," a different former top FBI counterterrorism official said ethics don't always matter. He said, "We could go to a source and say, 'We know you're having an affair. If you work with us, we won't tell your wife.'" It's not hard to see how "trapped" informants adding names can help the watchlist to grow.

Yet page 101 explains that the FBI "watchlisting efforts must be predicated upon four basic operational concepts: maintenance of high-quality terrorist identity data, dissemination of terrorist identity data, responsive information sharing, and safeguarding civil liberties." What would it be like if they weren't "protecting" our civil liberties? The ACLU's Chris Calabrese described the watchlist to the Times as a "Star Chamber" - as "a secret determination, that you have no input into, that you are a terrorist. Once that determination is made, it can ripple through your entire life and you have no way to challenge it."


This is depressing. This is un-American. The FBI actually has steps for watchlisting the deceased, so what chance does the living have? EPIC's Ginger McMall said, "In the United States, you are supposed to be assumed innocent. But on the watchlist, you may be assumed guilty, even after the court dismisses your case." Mother Jones quoted a favorite FBI saying as "To catch the devil, you have to go to hell." Sometimes I think that is exactly where American civil liberties are going in a flaming handbasket of warrantless domestic-spying-on-steroids and guilty-until-proven-innocent databases.

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon