The Intercept — an online news site founded by an associate of Wikileaker Edward Snowden — reports that a classified government database of confirmed or suspected terrorists has doubled in size since a listing in March 2010, three months after an airliner was nearly blown to pieces over Detroit by a member of al-Qaida.
At first blush, the unprecedented growth of the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database appears to be a sensible response by security agents to a narrowly-avoided catastrophe. Those on the terrorist watch list are restricted in their ability to board commercial airliners flying in or out of the United States, thereby reducing the risk of a domestic attack.
But an additional figure released by The Intercept casts the watch list in a different light. It reported that 40 percent of those on it, including 5,000 U.S. citizens, were not affiliated with terrorist agents or organizations, raising the question of why they made the list.
It’s possible, given past practice, that many individuals were targeted based on little more than intuition, racism or religious prejudice. If they have no legitimate ties to treacherous activity, they are guilty until proven innocent.
This would not be the first time the government may have abused its investigative authority. In late July, FBI counterterrorism officers were accused by Human Rights Watch of indiscriminately targeting Muslim centers and mosques, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Security authorities cannot be expected to produce incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing on every person they puts on a terror watch list. At the same time, such a list should not be the result of a fishing expedition but analysis based on sound fact. If not, the government risks infringing upon civil liberties, the very freedoms the nation seeks to protect.