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40% Of People On Terror Watch List Have No Terrorist Ties 256

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the friendly-neighborhood-terrorist dept.
Advocatus Diaboli (1627651) writes with the chilling, but not really surprising, news that the U.S. government is aware that many names in its terrorist suspect database are not linked to terrorism in any way. From the article: 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.
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40% Of People On Terror Watch List Have No Terrorist Ties

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  • by Joe Gillian (3683399) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:32AM (#47613383)

    If there are 280,000 people on the watch list that are there despite having no recognized ties to any terrorist groups.. why are they on the list at all?

    • by Agares (1890982)
      Fascism my friend fascism.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I doubt that...

        More likely is a huge backlog and incompetence (remember you are dealing with a bureaucracy). So someone enters a name poof on the list (guilty with no trial, acted suspicious, etc). Then the 'trial' happens. The trial part is harder as you have to go thru the persons information ALL of it. You want to be sure as they ended up on the list somehow and you dont want to be the guy who pops one off the list and it turns out they did something. So the input rate is greater than the output rat

    • by jbeaupre (752124) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:58AM (#47613623)

      You don't have to affiliate with a terrorist group to be a terrorist. i.e. Unibomber.

      But your question is still reasonable: why are they on the list? It must be some other undisclosed reason(s). Some might be valid, some might not.

      • But your question is still reasonable: why are they on the list? It must be some other undisclosed reason(s). Some might be valid, some might not.

        These days if it's undisclosed I assume it is not valid.

    • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:12AM (#47613753) Homepage Journal

      If there are 280,000 people on the watch list that are there despite having no recognized ties to any terrorist groups.. why are they on the list at all?

      It's an election year, and nobody wants to appear soft on the wrongfully accused.

    • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:25AM (#47613895)

      If there are 280,000 people on the watch list that are there despite having no recognized ties to any terrorist groups.. why are they on the list at all?

      Political disidints.

      And no, I'm not kidding. The government has a long history of describing activism as terrorist activity. Martin Luther King for example.

      • According to Greenwald, there are bigger stories to come from the Snowden leaks.

        Since the beginning, my big question has been who are they actually targeting to spy on? I know they're recording everybody's calls, but whose calls are they stopping to listen to? Names.

        Last month they revealed the five muslim Americans (mostly lawyers) who they were spying on. It's easy to say, "yeah, but brown people." And I think that's exactly the goal. Let people say "well, it was just muslims and they're kinda all terreri

    • by jeti (105266) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:28AM (#47613925) Homepage

      Probably to satisfy some quota. As seems to be the case for the no-fly list [thedenverchannel.com].

    • by Sockatume (732728)

      Because contrary to its ostensible function, it's a loosely assembled list of people they have a vague notion that they might be worth paying attention to, not cutting-edge intelligence.

    • I don't know if it's the "Terrorist Watch List" but my name somehow got on a list. I remember when I was getting my ticket at the check in stand, the agent took my ID and walked off. For 30 minutes I was standing there with no answers. When they came back, they said my name was similar to a name on a watchlist and in the future, I needed to make sure to add my middle initial to any tickets I purchased. I spaced on that the next ticket I bought and sure enough, the same 30 minute process. Since then I've alw
  • So if they know that 40% don't have terrorist ties, perhaps they should clean up their list?
    • Having a terrorist tie only means that your second cousin is friends with a person who has a roommate suspected of being a Hama sympathiser.

      Not having a tie, and being on the list, means this person might possible like a build a bomb and blow up some civilians. I am more leaning to the ones with ties are more likely to not belong on the list than the ones without.
      • Having a terrorist tie only means that your second cousin is friends with a person who has a roommate suspected of being a Hama[s] sympathiser.

        I'm probably on there for using the #StopArmingIsrael hashtag more than never.

        Whoops, there I go again.

      • As nearly for every pair of persons on the planet yields: they are connected to each other by maximum 5 hops ...

        Not having a tie more likely means: they got put into the DB on some suspicion, now we have the confirmation there is no tie, however: they don't get removed from the DB!

    • Because: What if one of those 40% decides to become a terrorist and is allowed on a plane or isn't tracked closely thanks to being removed from the list? Can you prove that none of those 40% will ever become a terrorist in the future? No? Then they need to remain on the list just in case they one day get terrorist leanings.

      Seriously, though. These agencies, sadly, seem to think in these terms. Any reduction in surveillance or removal from a terrorist watch list - even if the people being removed have n

      • And there's no incentive to remove anyone from any list ever. All it costs in hard drive space, and that's cheap. If it wastes time because of extra scrutiny for people at the airport or traffic stops that just means we need more TSA agents and more police, which just means the police state apparatus needs to be bigger, so it fuels itself.

  • In which mathematical system is 40>60?

    • In which mathematical system is 40>60?

      It does. The list arbitrarily denies the right to free travel and movement among the various states for no reason whatsoever, almost 300,000 people in total. It draws into question the accuracy of the "60%"--that is, if nearly 300,000 people are arbitrarily on the list for no discernible link to terrorism, how many of the "60%" that they claim have ties to terrorism, actually do?

      The incompetence of the 40% casts doubt on the claim of "60%" accuracy. I.e. "Of the 60% who do allegedly have terrorist ties, aga

      • I don't think it's necessarily an error rate. What they're saying is these people may be lone actors (Unibomber, Boston bombers) who are not linked to any actual terrorist organization. Or, they're people who they think may become radicalized but have not actually phoned up Al Qaeda yet.

        It's still a ridiculous number, but one can be a terrorist without being linked to a terrorist group. Yet.

        • I don't think it's necessarily an error rate. What they're saying is these people may be lone actors (Unibomber, Boston bombers) who are not linked to any actual terrorist organization. Or, they're people who they think may become radicalized but have not actually phoned up Al Qaeda yet.

          It's still a ridiculous number, but one can be a terrorist without being linked to a terrorist group. Yet.

          You're not incorrect in your logic--one can be a terrorist without having yet been linked to a terrorist group. But it begs the question of how they were identified as terrorists and put on watch lists in the first place. Is it because they look funny? Smell funny? Have a funny hair-do? Wear traditional "muslim" clothing when they travel? Have the wrong political beliefs? Have the right political beliefs but don't express them ardently enough for big brother's taste?

          The basic problem with a "Terrorism watch

    • by gstoddart (321705) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:57AM (#47613613) Homepage

      In which mathematical system is 40>60?

      It doesn't, but you need to go a little deeper into the article:

      So this is the blurb in the summary:

      That category -- 280,000 people -- dwarfs the number of watchlisted people suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah combined.

      And this is deeper in the article:

      The groups with the largest number of targeted people on the main terrorism watchlist -- aside from "no recognized terrorist group affiliation" -- are al Qaeda in Iraq (73,189), the Taliban (62,794), and al Qaeda (50,446). Those are followed by Hamas (21,913) and Hezbollah (21,199).

      So, there are 50K more people who are known to NOT have terrorist ties than all of those combined, and several times more than any single category.

      Basically the list is useless, because they have more known non-terror linked subjects than they have people with actual links to terrorism.

      I'm betting that list is anti-war protesters, people who disagree with the government, or who have done any number of innocent things which you have a right to do.

      In other words, pretty much anybody they can find.

    • by Jaime2 (824950)
      They didn't say that. They said that the 40% "dwarfs the number of watchlisted people suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah combined". That means that the second list is only a small portion of the remaining 60%. It also means that most of the 60% aren't suspected of having ties to the three groups - and therefore also are probably false positives. Note that they said "suspected", most of the 60% aren't even suspected of having ties to the big three.
  • by wisnoskij (1206448) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:43AM (#47613485) Homepage
    I do not think it is supposed to be particularly easy to join hamas, particularly for an American. You do not just look up "Terrorist" in the yellow pages and call 1-800-alQ-aeda.

    The ability to join a known terrorist organization is limited to a few people based on genes, friendships, and geography.
    The ability to hate the government and to build bombs is universal.
    Ergo, most terrorists will most likely not have any affiliation is known terrorist organizations.
  • by Meneth (872868) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:43AM (#47613491)
    Terrorism doesn't have to be organized. Just look at Breivik!
  • Realistically, how many people share the same name as a terrorist? I had a friend by the name of Chris Johnson who had been flagged. If one Chris Johnson is a bad guy...all the rest are not, and I bet that's a lot of Johnsons. What made it funny was that he had a top secret clearance but still got flagged at airports.
    • by Misagon (1135)

      Practically every other moslem in the Middle East, I would guess, and a few more.
      Some names from Islam's history, such as Mohammed or Ibrahim are very common, as first, last and middle names.
      For instance, I know two people named Ibrahim Mohammed, both having being born in Europe, descendants of immigrants and not the least bit religious.

      • It is the same with
        Peter, T(h)omas, Fred(dy)(deric), Frank(ciscus), Marry(an) etc. p.p.
        Nearly every christian name ... erm name used by christs, has an associated saint and a name patron.
        Lucklily I have a more high name, simlly Angelo :) and my name fits to all book religions, except that the hebrews call me 'Malak' and the in arabic it is oh ... 'Malak', too.

  • All that means is that the selection process has some small error rate. Lets say the list of all travellers is 200 million*. That's about a 1.4% error rate (false positives). Not bad.

    Of course, its a bitch for those caught on the list for no good reason. Which is why some quality control measures need to be implemented to improve this number.

    *Don't rely heavily on this number. I just pulled it out of my ass to illustrate error rates when selecting a small subset out of a large population.

  • by whistlingtony (691548) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:07AM (#47613703)

    Let's face it.... a group of 20 people could do major damage to the U.S. If I had cells of 5 people in a few states.... I could cause wide spread chaos and fear. If they were watching 100 people, I'd think the list was excellent. If they were watching 500 people, I'd think the list was almost prudent. That they are watching 680,000 people? That list is USELESS. Needle in a haystack useless.

    If there ARE plots to hurt Americans, we need much better, much TIGHTER scrutiny of specific individuals... A Terrorist Watch List, to be effective, should have the top 50 suspects, and their closest associates. 500 people at the most.

    That list didn't catch the Boston Bomber..... even though Russia TOLD US he might be a problem. Needle in a haystack.... Forget the 40%. The sheer number of people on that list makes it useless. Lets face it, there are probably a few hundred people out of 300 million that really need watching.

    I honestly doubt there are more than a handfull of people inside the US that have: actual terrorist desires, actual terrorist connections, an actual plan to hurt people, and enough fanaticism to overcome the fear of Gitmo or Death. There might be more with one or two of these, but look around you... if we're in so much danger, where's the actual DANGER? Since Sept. 11th, we've had ONE guy, the boston bomber... ok, and a bunch of right wing soverign citizen types.

    Actually, I'm much more afraid of a crazy american trying to topple the government (all by himself, of course) than an actual terrorist.

    • by c (8461)

      Actually, I'm much more afraid of a crazy american trying to topple the government (all by himself, of course) than an actual terrorist.

      Yeah, the rest of the world is afraid of your politicians, too.

    • by reikae (80981)

      If I had cells of 5 people in a few states.... I could cause wide spread chaos and fear.

      If you owned TV networks, newspapers and such you could do it very efficiently. You don't need to directly hurt anyone or mess around with bombs to cause terror.

    • by ADRA (37398)

      Well, that crazy American would be a defacto terrorist in such cases, but *shrugs*. I'm more concerned with people that are legitimately crazy becase they may not be on any list and just randomly snap on go on rampages. The best way to mitigate the 'random crazies' is to encourage mental health checks much akin to health checks and to take the dangerous toys out of their hands. But lets be frank, in America neither of those things will happen.

    • by DarkOx (621550)

      Exactly the entire effort is wrong headed. If someone wants to cause a calamity they can.

      Consider the west. You don't even need cells of 5 people, if you just had 20 people that all agreed they were going to drive out some highway in 20 different areas out west and start a wild fire all on the same day it could easily be enough to exhaust fire fighting resources. All of the could accomplish that with no training and supplies they could acquire at any gas station on the way to job without raising any susp

  • by Plumpaquatsch (2701653) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:09AM (#47613717) Journal
    No terrorist will fly under a name he used before, most certainly not his birth name.
    • by Zaatxe (939368)
      "You seem to know a lot about how terrorists work... let me put your name in this list here..."
  • A successful terrorist doesn't necessarily need to join a club. Look at the villains our vast comic-book history: they're almost all scarier when they act alone and not as part of some terror franchise.

  • ...according to themselves:

    http://www.securitronlinux.com... [securitronlinux.com]
    http://www.techspot.com/news/5... [techspot.com]

    You gotta love how "scared" they are of us. They have NO clue.
  • by rossdee (243626) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:21AM (#47613851)

    Well we know what to get them for Christmas then

    Heres a marketing opportunity, ties with the logos of the FSF, GreenPeace PETA, Sierra Club, Pirate Bay, or even Charles Schwab (they do IRA's)
     

  • I'm surprised.

  • by raymorris (2726007) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:21AM (#47613855)

    I hate to say it, and I know this will go against the common feeling here, but I think TFS misses the point. Misses by some distance, actually.
    Timothy McVeigh wasn't, to my knowledge, associated with any recognized terrorists organizations. That doesn't mean he shouldn't have been on a list of people the FBI is concerned about. Whether or not they are known to be a member of a known terrorist group isn't the important question. (Note also the difference between "we don't know which group they are affiliated with" vs "we know they aren't communicating with any group"). If someone is acting like a terrorist, such as buying explosives on the black market, the government should probably make a note of that fact, regardless of what groups they are associated with or not associated with.

    The information in the report that is more concerning to me is that they have added 430,000 names to the "terrorist-related" database in the last four years. That sounds like far too many people. I was surprised the report said they REMOVED 50,000 names in those same four years. That's good news. I'm also concerned about the EFFECTS of being in this database. If there were that many people on the no-fly list, that would be troubling, but I don't think that's the case. If a listed person flies to the middle east and back and that triggers a notification to authorities so they can include that information in their larger understanding of what's going on, that's less troubling.

    We should be asking "how is this list used?" and "what ARE the criteria to be put on this list?"
    Those, I think, are more important questions than "how many act alone or in small groups, as opposed to recognized organizations?"

  • Define "known" (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Overzeetop (214511) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:21AM (#47613859) Journal

    I know, that sounds like defining "is" or "sex with that woman" but...

    TFA indicates that they have no "recognized terrorist group affiliation ties". So does that parse to
    (1) American citizens who have no ties to a terrorist group
    (2) no known ties to a terrorist group, but the NSA could have metadata that shows contact with one or multiple known members of those groups,
    (3) ties to groups which we suspect may have terrorist motives/wings/connections but are not currently recognized as terrorist groups
    (4) ties to or current or prior foreign citizenship from state which sponsor or harbor terror groups

    Option (1) is what the article would suggest. Here's a similarly ambiguous statement, which is 100% truthful: "Of the 280,000 people on the list who have no recognized terrorist group affiliation ties, none are identified in the article as being Americans citizens." Of course, the infographic indicates that, of the 660,000 people on the watchlist, 3300 are American citizens (0.5%), but not that any of those 3300 are in the unaffiliated group. Which is why I suggest items (3) and (4), which (I'm guessing) make up the vast majority of those in the 40%.

  • TFA says 40% have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” So the Unabomber would fall into this category, as would someone who had expressed a desire to set of a bomb, or someone who says "as a member of the blah blah group I am committed to terrorism" (if there is no recognised blah blah group).
  • There is a many to many mapping of those. (Should be many to one, but nothing is perfect.)

    That is, my slashdot user name is one "name", so is my "real" name that people call me, which is not the full name on my birth certificate. So that's three names for one person.

    Also, not all terrorist groups are in the middle east, or Muslim. Several are right here in the US, and Christian. (Or Jewish, not sure if any atheist groups are in the US).

  • Perhaps they simply put all Doe's and Smith's into the database? (yes, the ' is incorrect but makes more clear the does and Does :) )

  • The govt had a communist list full of people that the administration did not like.

    The "terror list" is honestly nothing more than a shit list.

  • Aka, 113 new names on that list!

    • by Chrisq (894406)

      Aka, 113 new names on that list!

      Anonymous Coward is appearing so much that s/he will soon be on the most wanted list

  • If you remember how low their standards are for marking someone as affiliated with a terrorist group, this 40% must be super-whitebread middle-Americans who have never met a foreigner.

  • by mi (197448) <slashdot-2012@virtual-estates.net> on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @12:53PM (#47615043) Homepage

    Somewhere somehow someone slowly turned travel to be a privilege, which the Executive can withdraw at a whim. It ought to be explicitly declared a right, which only the Judiciary can suspend — after a trial.

    And it is not just airtravel — under Obama, Bush-created TSA are expanding their "jurisdiction" over all other mass transit [nytimes.com], nor can you drive a personal car without the government's permission (driver's license). And having somebody else drive you without a government's permission is troublesome [thefreetho...roject.com] too.

How many QA engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? 3: 1 to screw it in and 2 to say "I told you so" when it doesn't work.

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