Report: Terrorism Watchlist Has Fast Growth and Influence on Policing

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today released Trapped in a Black Box: Growing Terrorist Watchlisting in Everyday Policing, a report prepared by the Civil Liberties and National Security Clinic at Yale Law School. The report analyzes 13,000 pages of new information from a joint Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation by the ACLU and the clinic, which reveals that the U.S. government has drastically expanded the use of a consolidated watchlisting system that now includes hundreds of thousands of individuals. The watchlist, referred to as the Known or Suspected Terrorist (KST) File, is part of a vast system of domestic surveillance of people whom law enforcement labels suspect based on vague and loose criteria, according to the report.

“The primary purpose of the KST File seems to not be law enforcement, but the indefinite surveillance and tracking of a large population of individuals,” said Alice Wang ’16 of Yale Law School’s Civil Liberties and National Security Clinic and one of the two principal authors of the report.

The report contains new data that reveals for the first time the vast expanse of the watchlist now known as the KST File. It ballooned over 2000 percent from 2003 to 2008, growing at an average of 144 names per day to become a massive database of 272,000 entries by the end of 2008, according to the report. Today, the KST File contains hundreds of thousands of names. The names of these watchlisted individuals are disseminated to law enforcement officers nationwide through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, making them vulnerable to a heightened risk of unwarranted monitoring and surveillance as well as prolonged detention and questioning, according to the report.

In addition, the report reveals for the first time that the government uses a function called “silent hits” to secretly track encounters with watchlisted individuals without alerting even the frontline law enforcement officers. When an officer searches for an individual listed as a silent hit, for example during a routine traffic stop, the officer receives no hit, but an automatic notification is sent to the FBI or other source agency, according to the report. As a result, the silent hits system effectively turns frontline law enforcement officers into domestic intelligence gatherers without their knowledge.

“The widespread domestic use of the file has serious constitutional and privacy implications for those who are included,” said Dror Ladin, a staff attorney at the ACLU.

In addition to unwarranted law enforcement scrutiny, these individuals face the risk of mistaken dissemination of watchlist information to private third parties, as well as discriminations in immigration and naturalization proceedings, the report found. Despite the threat to these individuals’ due process and privacy rights, they have little recourse to challenge the watchlisting procedures.

The Civil Liberties and National Security Clinic at Yale Law School has focused on civil liberties and human rights cases arising out of U.S. government counterterrorism policies, such as the detention of terrorism suspects in the U.S., Guantanamo and Bagram, the misuse of law enforcement techniques such as the immigration and material witness detention powers, and accountability of government officials for the unlawful detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects.

The project started two years ago and picks up from joint litigation done with the ACLU, which resulted in 13,000 pages of FOIA documents regarding the VGTOF/KST database. The report is the result of the clinic's analysis of those documents and the new data it reveals, and for the first time sheds significant light on the workings of a terrorist watchlisting database that affects hundreds of millions of people.

For more information, contact Alice Wang or Zachary Blau.