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

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 31415926535897 ( 702314 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:31AM (#47613371) Journal

    Then it means that 60% from this list have terrorist ties ? Good result.

    No. No it's not. Not for any meaning of "good result".

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:32AM (#47613379) Homepage

    No, I suspect it's much lower.

    They know that 40% have nothing to do with terrorism, and one suspects it's much higher than that.

    Basically they're taking a scatter-shot approach, and don't need to justify it, and don't give a damn that they're impacting people's lives with bad information.

    These guys would be just as happy to go with the "everyone is a terrorist until proven otherwise model", where the proven otherwise occurs when you're dead.

    It makes it so much easier to be fascists when you don't need to justify your lists of people to watch out for.

    They've already more or less admitted that they have absolutely no control with these lists, and that any agency, for any reason, without any actual evidence can add someone to the watch lists.

    This allows them to be both a malicious cancer and incompetent morons without recourse.

  • 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 truedfx ( 802492 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:33AM (#47613393)

    It means 60% on that list are suspected of having terrorist ties. It does not mean they really do have terrorist ties, and it does not mean the suspicion is reasonable. In other words, that 60% would need to be further categorised before it becomes a meaningful statistic.

    The 40% on the other hand is already a meaningful statistic.

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:38AM (#47613455) Homepage

    The 40% on the other hand is already a meaningful statistic.

    Meaningful enough for one to conclude that if the real numbers were out there, they'd be doing about as well as random chance (hey, they have a 50/50 chance of being right), and quite probably are doing FAR worse.

    If they're admitting that 40% don't have any ties, you can probably assume that the number of people who don't belong on the list is much higher.

    This is what happens when you have secret lists, and no evidentiary threshold to apply to put people on it.

    Overall, I'm going to conclude these agencies are at least 40% incompetent.

  • Re:What a shocker! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NotDrWho ( 3543773 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @09:45AM (#47613507)

    Most of us (on /. anyway) realized right after 2001 that the "We're trying to catch terrorists!" excuse would be used to steamroll over the rights and protections of pretty much EVERYONE. The T E R R O R I S T boogeyman has become a goddamned golden license to do anything for the CIA, NSA, FBI, ATF, etc.--all the way down to the local yokel sheriff who uses his new toys and tools to spy on his wife.

    It was never about terrorism. It was about exploiting terrorism to create the police state they always wanted.

  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:12AM (#47613749)

    I would have expected that well over 90% of people on the terror list have nothing to do with terrorism. So, this number is actually quite low, and if true, means that (1) the government is successful in identifying terrorists, and (2) there are really LOTS of terrorists on the planet, which is really worrying.

    I strongly suspect that 40% are confirmed false positives. Then there is a large group that they don't know yet, but who are just innocent and mostly harmless.

  • 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 JackieBrown ( 987087 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:13AM (#47613759)

    After the Boston Marathon Bombing, the tea party were the first people blamed. The shooter of the judge and congresswomen in Arizona was also blamed on conservatives (even though it turned out the guy was a liberal.)

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

    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%.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:27AM (#47613917)

    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 rate. As getting onto the list is easy (apparently ~1000/~60 per day). Getting off takes a senator writing a letter or someone bothering to look.

    Remember from the outside malice and incompetence look identical. I think the level of CYA and empire building is more the cause than some mysterious 'they'. The effect however is the same :(

    Now what this alarmist article leaves out though is that list limited to Americans only? Or does it include other countries? Also how did those people end up on the list? Was it past criminal history of similar nature? But with that many people on the list there is bound to be a decently high % that is wrong. It seems to be more of a dragnet of 'bad people'. I thought in this country we had innocent before guilty. But apparently the people who own this list think differently.

  • by kilfarsnar ( 561956 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @10:36AM (#47614003)

    They've already more or less admitted that they have absolutely no control with these lists, and that any agency, for any reason, without any actual evidence can add someone to the watch lists.

    Let's think this through for a minute... So you would rather that the list be made up of persons with known terrorism group allegiances, and that any and all supporting information also be cataloged in the same place so that the list is audit-ready to outline exactly who is a terrorist, why, and how we know that? Yeah fucking right. The list itself would be a roadmap for how the US finds and tracks terrorists. You're just going to have to unwad your panties on this one, you don't get to decide who the defense department targets since you are completely unqualified to do so and frankly, don't know shit about mitigating the risk of terrorism.

    We don't need a list at all. We didn't need one before 9/11/2001 and we don't need one now. The CIA and whomever else were tracking the hijackers before they attacked. They just failed to stop them for whatever reason. Two of them were living with an FBI informant for crying out loud. We didn't need a list to know they were with Al Qaeda and where they lived in the country.

    We don't need a list. And no speech about how we need Col. Jessup up on that wall will convince me otherwise.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @11:15AM (#47614373)

    Hamas kill innocent people (random rockets on Israel) -> all Palestinians are terrorists.
    US Government kill innocent people (signature strikes with drones) -> all Americans are terrorists.

    Oh yes, I see the logic. No flaw at all. (/sarcasm)

  • Re:What a shocker! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @11:24AM (#47614441)

    According to NSA's current spying policy, it's pretty clear that they see that world has two kinds of people in it. Those who have been found to be terrorists, and those who haven't been found to be terrorists yet.

    One of the most revolutionary aspects of Western sense of justice has been presumption of innocence. Throughout the history, presumption of guilt was far more common in justice systems everywhere. That's why the most common way to question suspects was torture.

    This is simply the security and justice apparatus degrading into it's more natural state due to lack of stringent oversight.

  • by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) * on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @12:47PM (#47615005)

    1% of 680,000 is still 6,800. You really think even that many citizens could be proved to be terrorists?!

    I suspect even 1% is at least an order of magnitude too high (assuming the number of bona-fide terrorists on the list is non-zero, which it might not be).

  • 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 [], 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 [] too.

  • by Aqualung812 ( 959532 ) on Wednesday August 06, 2014 @03:40PM (#47616545)

    You're preaching to the converted on the shitty implementation of this list. I don't support or defend it.

    I just don't like people drawing a conclusion from a statement that isn't consistent with it.

Mathemeticians stand on each other's shoulders while computer scientists stand on each other's toes. -- Richard Hamming