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Sordid History Of Terrorist Watch Lists Stain Both Democrats and Republicans

The terrorist watch list: it’s the latest salvo from gun control activists who are pushing the narrative that integrating this anti-terror program into our National Instance Criminal Background Check system (NICS), which is run by the FBI, would prevent terrorists from getting weapons. The concept of terrorists abiding by gun control laws is fraught with hilarity, but this issue would probably poll well. I mean no one wants terrorists to have weapons. Yet, the history of this anti-terror mechanism born out of the post-9/11 era has a rather murky history regarding constitutional law and effectiveness that stains both parties. At the same time, most of this Bush-era policy has seemingly flipped the debate entirely between the two parties, both of which are stained over the lack of due process inherent within the screening process.


To start, there isn’t just one list. Byron Tau of the Wall Street Journal reported that the no-fly list is one of many the government compiles, and they’re mostly secretive which up until recently had no mechanism for the innocent to petition to have their names removed. Tau added that a federal judge ruled that the “government’s system for dealing with appeals and challenges to inclusion on the no-fly list are unconstitutional. Passengers on the no-fly list are denied the ability to board flights, but previously weren’t given an explanation why.”

There are 16,000 people on this list alone. Then, there’s the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment [emphasis mine]:

The National Counterterrorism Center runs a central repository of more than 1 million people called Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. The TIDE database, which includes about 25,000 Americans as of 2013, is drawn from intelligence community sources and is classified.

An unclassified subset of the TIDE database is made available to law enforcement as part of the Terrorist Screening Database. That database contains biographical and biometric information about potential terrorists and can be accessed by local, state and federal law enforcement officials who don’t have security clearances. As of 2011, that database was said to contain about 420,000 names, according to the FBI.

The Transportation Security Administration receives an even smaller list of people subject to travel restrictions drawn from the Terrorist Screening Database. In addition to the 16,000 names on the no-fly list in 2011, another 16,000 were on the selectee list. The selectee list doesn’t prevent individuals from flying but subjects them to extra scrutiny.

Critics say that banning suspected terrorists from buying guns poses the same problems as banning them from traveling: namely, the lack of transparency around the process used and concern of depriving individuals of their rights over the mere suspicion of terrorism.


No-fly lists have many documented mishaps. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), musician Cat Stephens, and scores of children, aged from 18 months to under 10 years of age, caused delays due to being flagged on the list. In other cases, confusion with the names lands the innocent in trouble.

The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes and CNN’s Drew Griffin also found themselves on the terror watch list, which then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary admitted could have been an instance of a name mismatch. Hayes suspects his trip to Turkey last year is what landed him in the database. In short, the whole process is a mess. Another interesting aspect of this debate is that the sides have changed. Bush-era Democrats warned about the excesses of the programs, while Republicans said it was in the interests of national security, according to the Atlantic’s David Graham. He added that in 2008, then-Senator Obama criticized the Bush administration for overreach on civil liberties and secrecy in this area, until Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airliner by blowing up his underwear in December of 2009. The administration then injected steroids into the no-fly list, and embodied a demeanor very much like his predecessor in this area:

Yet when the [Obama] administration was sued by a man who believed he was on the list, it refused to say whether or not the man was on the list. As Nick Baumann of Mother Jones put it, “2008 Obama would have slammed 2014 Obama for this.”


Graham mentioned that integrating a list into NICS that lacks due process is the actual issue in this debate. That isn’t controversial. It’s the fact that you can land on these lists for merely being suspicious.

“How does someone get on the watchlist? Who knows! The government says it gets thousands of tips a day, but it won’t tell you whether you’re on it, and it won’t tell you how to get off,” wrote Graham, who then linked to his colleague Conor Friedersdorf’s 2012 piece about this subject–and how trying to get your name cleared is a total fiasco.

At least those who are barred from gun ownership–violent offenders, domestic abusers, and the mentally adjudicated–go through a transparent legal process.

It is appalling that Democrats are using a policy that spits in the face of the Bill of Rights in order to push for more gun control. The logic is insane. We’re going to cannibalize the Fifth Amendment to potentially gut the Second one? The mere notion that one should be barred from gun ownership because he, or she, might be suspicious of terrorist activity without being formally charged or convicted flies in the face of everything our system of justice stands for. Moreover, a large portion of the names on the terrorist watch list–almost 300,000–have zero ties to terrorism. At the same time, these lists, and their corresponding policies, were born from Republicans, who also disregarded the principle of due process of law.


If we’re honest, both parties look awful in this debate. On one hand, Republicans are finally doing what’s right: preventing these lists from being used in a way that would certainly infringe on Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Yet, where were they when reports of lack of due process, and overall inefficiency, were reported? As for Democrats, yes, they were the first to raise the red flags about the pitfalls of using secretive lists, but does that give them a pass to put the Bill of Rights through the shredder? Moreover, it will do little, if anything, to deter or prevent future mass shootings. Both parties share the blame (and the charge of being hypocrites) for continuing to entertain this constitutional mess of an anti-terror policy.

Oh, and the new process to petition your name on the no-fly list is being challenged (again) by the American Civil Liberties Union for…lack of due process concerns.

No, not a big fan of the ACLU, but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

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