Nearly half of the people on the U.S. government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist group, according to classified government documents obtained by The Intercept.
Of the 680,000 people caught up in the government’s Terrorist Screening Database—a watchlist of “known or suspected terrorists” that is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments—more than 40 percent are described by the government as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” That category—280,000 people—dwarfs the number of watchlisted people suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah combined.
The documents, obtained from a source in the intelligence community, also reveal that the Obama Administration has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the terrorist screening system. Since taking office, Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000—surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush.
The classified documents were prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center, the lead agency for tracking individuals with suspected links to international terrorism. Stamped “SECRET” and “NOFORN” (indicating they are not to be shared with foreign governments), they offer the most complete numerical picture of the watchlisting system to date. Among the revelations:
• The second-highest concentration of people designated as “known or suspected terrorists” by the government is in Dearborn, Mich.—a city of 96,000 that has the largest percentage of Arab-American residents in the country.
• The government adds names to its databases, or adds information on existing subjects, at a rate of 900 records each day.
• The CIA uses a previously unknown program, code-named Hydra, to secretly access databases maintained by foreign countries and extract data to add to the watchlists.
The Associated Press dropped a significant scoop on Tuesday afternoon, reporting that in the last several years the U.S. government’s terrorism watch list has doubled.
A few minutes after the AP story, then consisting of three paragraphs, was posted at 12:32 p.m., The Intercept published a much more comprehensive article. The original article, which has since been updated and expanded, appears below:
After the AP story ran, The Intercept requested a conference call with the National Counterterrorism Center. A source with knowledge of the call said that the government agency admitted having fed the story to the AP, but didn’t think the reporter would publish before The Intercept did. “That was our bad,” the official said.
Asked by The Intercept editor John Cook if it was the government’s policy to feed one outlet’s scoop to a friendlier outlet, a silence ensued, followed by the explanation: “We had invested some quality time with Eileen,” referring to AP reporter Eileen Sullivan, who the official added had been out to visit the NCTC.
“After seeing you had the docs, and the fact we had been working with Eileen, we did feel compelled to give her a heads up,” the official said, according to the source. “We thought she would publish after you.”
According to the source, Cook told the official that in the future the agency would have only 30 minutes to respond to questions before publication.
An NCTC spokesperson told HuffPost, “Last year NCTC published the size of the TIDE [Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment] database as a matter of transparency, and was in the process of doing so again this year. As such, we had been working with the AP for several months on a story about watchlisting and TIDE when First Look Media [publisher of The Intercept] approached us with a similar story. Because both the AP and First Look Media were working on a similar story, both news organizations should have been provided the same information simultaneously, which did not happen, and which was our mistake.”
The difference in tone between the AP and Intercept stories is clear.
U.S. intelligence officials were considering on Tuesday whether to ask the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into the suspected leak of a classified counter-terrorism document to a website, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said.
The intelligence officials were preparing a criminal referral over the publication on “The Intercept” website of a document that provides a statistical breakdown of the types of people whose names and personal information appear on two government data networks listing people with supposed connections to militants, the official said.
The document was published by The Intercept on Tuesday, but because it was dated August 2013, some U.S. media reports speculate that a second leaker besides former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden had begun to send classified documents from inside the U.S. intelligence community to the media.
An official familiar with the matter said, however, that the government does not know for sure that a second leaker exists.
The apparent leak involves information on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database (TIDE) and the Terrorist Screening Database, according to the document.
The graphic says the screening database is in turn extracted from TIDE, a larger, ultra-classified database which contains 320,000 more names than the unclassified one, as well as raw intelligence information excluded from the screening system.
Because the graphic carries a “secret” classification, an official said, the agency which generated it, The National Counterterrorism Center, is obliged to consider submitting a referral to the Department of Justice, which then can decide if a criminal investigation should be opened into the leak.
Related Link: LEAKED: U.S. Gov’s Secret Terrorist Watchlist Guidelines