The No-Fly List Has Grown Tenfold Since Obama Took Office

Newly disclosed classified documents reveal an enormous growth in terrorist watch lists during the Obama administration.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Aug. 5, 2014, 10 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama has presided over a massive in­crease in the size and scope of the coun­try’s “no-fly” list, which bars in­di­vidu­als sus­pec­ted of hav­ing ter­ror­ist ties from fly­ing on air­lines.

Forty-sev­en thou­sand people were on the no-fly list in 2013, mark­ing an all-time high that dwarfs the amount ever in­cluded dur­ing George W. Bush’s pres­id­ency, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is of newly re­leased clas­si­fied doc­u­ments pub­lished Tues­day by The In­ter­cept. In ad­di­tion, a “se­lect­ee list” used to pull out trav­el­ers for heightened scru­tiny at air­ports and bor­der cross­ings has grown lar­ger than 16,000 people, in­clud­ing 1,200 Amer­ic­ans.

The clas­si­fied doc­u­ments also show that 680,000 people are lis­ted in a much lar­ger Ter­ror­ist Screen­ing Data­base that fed­er­al au­thor­it­ies share with loc­al law en­force­ment, private con­tract­ors, and for­eign gov­ern­ments. Though de­signed as a watch list for “known or sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists,” 40 per­cent of the data­base con­tains in­di­vidu­als who are de­scribed as pos­sess­ing “no re­cog­nized ter­ror­ist af­fil­i­ation,” and 5,000 are lis­ted as Amer­ic­an.

Last month, The In­ter­cept pub­lished guidelines de­veloped by the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter in 2013 re­veal­ing broad and opaque stand­ards for be­ing placed on the gov­ern­ment’s ter­ror­ist roster, such as any activ­ity deemed “dan­ger­ous” to prop­erty or gov­ern­ment policy. The 166-page re­port re­vealed an ex­pan­ded ra­tionale for adding someone to a watch list un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and how dif­fi­cult it can be to have a name scrubbed — even if that per­son is de­ceased.

Also dis­closed are the five cit­ies with the most res­id­ents lis­ted in the screen­ing data­base: New York, Chica­go, Hou­s­ton, San Diego, and Dear­born, Mich. While the first four are among the largest cit­ies in the coun­try, Dear­born has a pop­u­la­tion of few­er than 100,000 res­id­ents, 40 per­cent of whom are of Ar­ab des­cent. Ac­cord­ing to The In­ter­cept, Dear­born’s in­clu­sion sug­gests its “sig­ni­fic­ant Muslim pop­u­la­tion “¦ has been dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­geted for watch­list­ing.”

The size of the no-fly list has ebbed over time, and its growth has not been lin­ear. In 2006, a copy of the list con­tained 44,000 names, in­clud­ing Bolivi­an Pres­id­ent Evo Mor­ales, ac­cord­ing to CBS News. Un­der scru­tiny, the gov­ern­ment shrunk the list drastic­ally to just 4,000 names by the end of 2009.

But Obama re­laxed the stand­ards for adding in­di­vidu­als to the no-fly list after the 2009 Christ­mas Day “un­der­wear bomber” in­cid­ent that oc­curred on a pas­sen­ger flight head­ing to De­troit. This ushered in an­oth­er wave of growth to the list and the lar­ger ter­ror­ism watch list data­bases.

The In­ter­cept was launched by journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald earli­er this year, and it fre­quently pub­lishes secret doc­u­ments from Ed­ward Snowden. Tues­day’s story makes no men­tion of Snowden as a source, however.

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