At long last, Americans know more about how people end up on a terrorist watchlist—though still not much.
Early on in a just-leaked 166-page U.S. government guide to officially declaring someone a terrorist or suspected terrorist, a passage acknowledges that "watchlisting is not an exact science." The whole enterprise has "inherent limitations," in part because "analytic judgments may differ regarding whether subjective criteria have been met," the document states. "Given these realities, the U.S. government's watchlisting process attempts to safeguard the American people from a TERRORIST attack while safeguarding privacy, civil rights and civil liberties."
Despite this explicit, official recognition of the system's inherent dangers, the Bush and Obama administrations both conspicuously failed to incorporate basic safeguards to protect innocent U.S. citizens and foreigners from inclusion. Their gross negligence stems from disregard for longstanding legal norms and protections and from unwarranted faith in the federal bureaucracy. This hubris is at direct odds with the logic of checks and balances within the American system that go back to the founding of the country.
Consider the features of the U.S. system that have traditionally distinguished us from repressive regimes where innocents are wrongfully labeled enemies of the state, or from Franz Kafka's stories:
- Clearly written, publicly available standards, subject to ongoing debate about their appropriateness, indicating how an individual could run afoul of the law.
- Due process, or the ability to challenge government findings before a neutral arbiter.
- Checks and balances, so that no one branch of government can seal a citizen's fate.
- Clarity regarding whether an appeal to the government's system has failed or succeeded.