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The government's biggest terrorist watchlist has more than a million names

Chip Somodevilla

More than one million names are included on secret lists of suspected terrorists maintained by a the Obama administration. A new report from the Intercept sheds new light on how the government maintains and uses these lists.

One of their surprising findings: almost half of the people on a key government list don't have known ties to any specific terrorist organization.

What lists does the government keep?

The government keeps several lists of terrorism suspects. The most important are:

  • When people talk about the terrorist watchlist, they usually mean something called the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). That list has nearly 700,000 names, according to the Intercept. The Associated Press has previously reported twice that number were on the list, but the Intercept says that was a mistake. Intelligence agencies use the information in this database to compile other, more targeted lists.
  • The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) is an even larger database that the Intercept describes as more invasive than the TSDB. The number of individuals in the database recently passed 1 million. More than a list, TIDE includes information drawn from a variety of sources.
  • The no-fly list is a more targeted list of people who, as the name implies, are barred from airplanes to or from the United States. This list currently has 47,000 names, which the Intercept describes as an all-time record.
  • A separate "selectee" list is a list of people who are receive extra scrutiny when they try try to board an aircraft. The Intercept says this list has 16,000 names, including 1,200 Americans.

Who is on the watchlist?

The Terrorist Screening Database includes more than 130,000 people suspected of ties to Al Qaeda or its affiliates, 63,000 people suspected of ties to the Taliban, 22,000 people suspected of ties to Hamas, 21,000 suspected of ties to Hezballah, and more than 100,000 people suspected of ties to other recognized terrorist groups.

In addition, there are 280,000 suspected terrorists who have not been classified as members of any specific terrorist group.

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(The Intercept)

The list is overwhelmingly male, with 611,000 men and just 39,000 women.

Among Americans on the watchlist, many live in Dearborn, MI, a town where 40 percent of residents are of Muslim descent.

How many people are on the no-fly list?

The number of people on the no-fly list list has fluctuated dramatically over time. In 2006, the no-fly list had 44,000 people on it. By 2009, the list was pared down to about 4,000.

Then, the Intercept reports, after the "underwear bomber" incident in 2010 President Obama ordered that the rules for inclusion on the no-fly list be relaxed. As a result, the number of people on the list soared to 47,000.

What happens to people on these lists?

The no-fly list is straightforward. If you're on it, you're likely to be denied boarding on airplanes to or from the United States. Similarly, if you're on the selectee list, you'll face extra scrutiny at airports.

The broader databases, TSDB and TIDE, are shared among a number of government agencies and used for a variety of purposes. They're used to compile targeted lists such as the no-fly and selectee lists. They're shared with various law-enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct investigations.

People on the list are likely to be subject to enhanced surveillance. The Intercept reports that the government has amassed biometric data such as mug shots and fingerprints for people in its million-person TIDE database.  The agency behind TIDE also "harvests information from CIA sources."

Is this a good way to fight terrorism?

A lot of people don't think so. Critics point out that having too many people in a terrorism database can be just as bad as too few. If law enforcement and intelligence agencies are "watching" hundreds of thousands of people, that could mean they're not actually watching anyone very carefully at all.

Civil libertarians also argue that the secret nature of these lists can run afoul of basic concepts of due process. If you're put on a watchlist by accident, as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy once was, it can be extremely difficult to get off. And government critics such as Laura Poitras and Jacob Appelbaum have reported being detained and harassed by US officials when they've traveled to and from the United States.

The government counters that it can't tell people who is on its lists and why without compromising intelligence sources and methods. But the result has been to turn airports into a kind of Constitution-free zone, where ordinary principles of due process don't apply.