Why the NSA Keeps Tracking People Even After They’re Dead

A newly disclosed government rule book reveals just how easy it is to get placed on a terrorist watch list — and how difficult it can be to get taken off.

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as seen from the air, January 29, 2010. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
July 23, 2014, 12:16 p.m.

You may be dead, but the U.S. gov­ern­ment won’t take you off its ter­ror­ist roster.

That’s ac­cord­ing to newly leaked in­tern­al guidelines from last year that re­veal in­tim­ate de­tails re­gard­ing the gov­ern­ment’s pro­cess for de­term­in­ing wheth­er an in­di­vidu­al should be des­ig­nated as a pos­sible ter­ror­ist sus­pect.

So broad are their cri­ter­ia that an in­di­vidu­al is able to be placed onto a watch list — and kept there — even if he or she is ac­quit­ted of a ter­ror­ism-re­lated crime. Ad­di­tion­ally, the guidelines note that a de­ceased per­son’s name may stay on the list be­cause such an iden­tity could be used as an ali­as by a sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ist.

The ra­tionale for adding someone to a watch list has gone from broad and opaque un­der the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion to even more ex­pans­ive un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is by The In­ter­cept, which pub­lished the guidelines on Wed­nes­day.

The 166-page re­port, as­sembled by the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter in March 2013, provides guid­ance to the gov­ern­ment’s myri­ad in­tel­li­gence agen­cies on the rules for pla­cing an in­di­vidu­al in a ter­ror­ist data­base, in­clud­ing the con­tro­ver­sial “no-fly” list that bars cer­tain trav­el­ers from board­ing flights.

The “no-fly” list was dra­mat­ic­ally strengthened shortly after the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks. But the 2013 in­tern­al guid­ance re­port in­dic­ates that a “sub­stan­tial ex­pan­sion of the ter­ror­ist watch­list sys­tem” has con­tin­ued un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and with the per­mis­sion of the pres­id­ent, a de­cision made after the 2009 “un­der­wear bomber” in­cid­ent that oc­curred on a pas­sen­ger flight to De­troit.

The cur­rent ter­ror­ist watch list is so easy to be put onto and so dif­fi­cult to get off of that even death might not erase a name. Ac­cord­ing to The In­ter­cept:

“Not even death provides a guar­an­tee of get­ting off the list. The guidelines say the names of dead people will stay on the list if there is reas­on to be­lieve the de­ceased’s iden­tity may be used by a sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ist — which the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter calls a ‘demon­strated ter­ror­ist tac­tic.’ In fact, for the same reas­on, the rules per­mit the de­ceased spouses of sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists to be placed onto the list after they have died.”

Both the Obama and Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions have re­fused to dis­close the cri­ter­ia for adding a name to one of its ter­ror­ist watch lists.

The In­ter­cept, launched by journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald, has routinely pub­lished leaks from Ed­ward Snowden since it formed earli­er this year. Not­ably, Wed­nes­day’s story makes no men­tion of Snowden provid­ing the doc­u­ments. It is un­clear how The In­ter­cept ob­tained the rule book.

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