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.
A man walks among tombstones as he visits the World War II Normandy American Cemetery in France, 2014. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

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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Dustin Volz is a staff correspondent for National Journal.

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