Watchlist Is Government Wishlist

Watchlisting GuidanceJeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux have just written a very scary article, Blacklisted: the Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist. Basically, it documents that it doesn’t take much of anything for the government to label you a terrorist. Being associated with someone who the government suspects of being a terrorist can be enough. But the problem really isn’t how broad a net the government is casting. It is how vague a net it is casting.

The problem here is that this is how the Soviet Union worked. Basically everyone there was guilty of multiple crimes against the state. You couldn’t really get through life without doing things that were technically wrong but which everyone did. And it was just fine—as long as you didn’t bother anyone in power. Once you did that, then you were screwed. The law came down on you hard. I’m not suggesting that this is the case in the United States, but it is certain that we are moving in that direction, and have been for at least a century.

One line from the article really got to me, “They also define as terrorism any act that is ‘dangerous’ to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.” It is the second part of that sentence that really bothers me. The reason is that I kind of agree that intimidation is a form of terrorism. Remember when Sharron Angle said, “I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” That was intimidation: elect me or there will be armed revolt. Remember when Ted Nugent said, “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will be either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” That was intimidation: if Obama wins re-election, I will try to kill him. Remember when Sarah Palin tweeted, “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”? That was intimidation. Do you want more? Media Matters provided a small list in, Conservative Media Figures Have History of Violent Rhetoric.

But you know you will never see Sharron Angle or Ted Nugent or Sarah Palin labeled a terrorist. The biggest reason is that they are part of the power elite and so are effectively untouchable. But it is also that they are on the right wing. The government has a history of being more worried about non-violent peace protesters than the Second Amendment brigade. (And maybe they should be; I think most of the Second Amendment shouters are actually cowards.) So you can depend upon whatever rules the government comes up with to be used against anyone working for change that the power elite doesn’t want.

Consider this wonderful sentence from the rule book, “Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.” In a strictly legal sense, I think this means that someone can be reasonably suspected of being a terrorist just because someone wants them to be. Given that I am not only not a terrorist, but a person committed to nonviolence, the circumstances would not permit any evidence being obtained to suspect me of terrorism. Therefore, the government ought to be able to label me as a suspected terrorist with no evidence at all. They won’t, of course; I’m no threat to the power elite. But this kind of wide open legalistic rule book for labeling terrorists is already being misused and will only be misused more in the future.

You question me? Read:

The system has been criticized for years. In 2004, [Senator] Ted Kennedy complained that he was barred from boarding flights on five separate occasions because his name resembled the alias of a suspected terrorist. Two years later, CBS News obtained a copy of the no fly list and reported that it included Bolivian president Evo Morales and Lebanese parliament head Nabih Berri.

Evo Morales is not terrorist, but he is a leftist, which appears to be close enough. And while Nabih Berri is a conservative, he’s also Lebanese. Need I say more?

If this all sounds like I’ve lost my mind, go read the whole article. It’s even worse than I’m making it out. The “Watchlisting Guidance” document should be called the “Wishlisting Guidance” document, because it pretty much allows the government to target anyone they want for any reason they want. But I don’t suppose that comes as a shock to any of my readers. To give you an idea, let me quote from the end of the article at length. While you’re reading it, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound like something out of a Kafka novel:

The government has been widely criticized for making it impossible for people to know why they have been placed on a watchlist, and for making it nearly impossible to get off. The guidelines bluntly state that “the general policy of the US Government is to neither confirm nor deny an individual’s watchlist status.” But the courts have taken exception to the official silence and footdragging: In June, a federal judge described the government’s secretive removal process as unconstitutional and “wholly ineffective.”

The difficulty of getting off the list is highlighted by a passage in the guidelines stating that an individual can be kept on the watchlist, or even placed onto the watchlist, despite being acquitted of a terrorism-related crime. The rulebook justifies this by noting that conviction in US courts requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas watchlisting requires only a reasonable suspicion. Once suspicion is raised, even a jury’s verdict cannot erase it.

Not even death provides a guarantee of getting off the list. The guidelines say the names of dead people will stay on the list if there is reason to believe the deceased’s identity may be used by a suspected terrorist—which the National Counterterrorism Center calls a “demonstrated terrorist tactic.” In fact, for the same reason, the rules permit the deceased spouses of suspected terrorists to be placed onto the list after they have died.

For the living, the process of getting off the watchlist is simple yet opaque. A complaint can be filed through the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, which launches an internal review that is not subject to oversight by any court or entity outside the counterterrorism community. The review can result in removal from a watchlist or an adjustment of watchlist status, but the individual will not be told if he or she prevails. The guidelines highlight one of the reasons why it has been difficult to get off the list—if multiple agencies have contributed information on a watchlisted individual, all of them must agree to removing him or her.

If a US citizen is placed on the no fly list while abroad and is turned away from a flight bound for the US, the guidelines say they should be referred to the nearest US embassy or consulate, which is prohibited from informing them why they were blocked from flying. According to the rules, these individuals can be granted a “One-Time Waiver” to fly, though they will not be told that they are traveling on a waiver. Back in the United States, they will be unable to board another flight.

The document states that nominating agencies are “under a continuing obligation” to provide exculpatory information when it emerges. It adds that the agencies are expected to conduct annual reviews of watchlisted American citizens and green card holders. It is unclear whether foreigners—or the dead—are reviewed at the same pace. As the rulebook notes, “watchlisting is not an exact science.”

Remember: when they hand you the knife, you are expected to kill yourself; but you don’t have to; if forced, they will do it for you.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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