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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Gov’t Watch List

The great majority of American travelers will never suffer the effects of having their names included on the federal government’s watch list of known or suspected terrorists. Air travel is stressful enough without the added worry of being subjected to “enhanced” airport security screenings and possibly being prohibited from flying altogether.

But it’s a seemingly inevitable byproduct of the anti-terrorism security apparatus that the names of many ordinary citizens find their way onto the list. And that has raised questions about what, exactly, are the criteria for inclusion on a list of could-be terrorists.

The federal government has been unequivocally opposed to revealing details of the guidelines used to identify candidates for the list. Epitomizing the administration’s position, Attorney General Eric Holder was quoted in The New York Times as follows: “If the guidance were released, it would provide a clear road map to undermine the government’s screening efforts, a key counterterrorism measure, and thus its disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause significant harm to national security.”

Notwithstanding such pushback from Washington, now a leaked copy of the National Counterterrorism Center’s Watchlisting Guidance was published by The Intercept.

The document outlines constitutionally protected activities and then proceeds to provide considerable detail as to how known and suspected terrorists can be identified. At 166 pages, it doesn’t lend itself to ready summarizing. And it includes loopholes such as this: “This Watchlist Guidance has been developed to help standardize the watchlisting community’s nomination and screening process. It is important to remember, however, that watchlisting is not an exact science. There are inherent limitations in any primarily name-based system and analytic judgments may differ regarding whether subjective criteria have been met.”

So for all its specificity, it allows for fairly broad discretion in whether or not to include someone on the list.

There is unarguably a need for such a list. Where opinions diverge is over the extent of the government’s discretion (“subjective criteria”) in adding names to the list, and whether the public has the right to know what the guidelines are.

For now, we do know what the guidelines are. (It’s unclear whether the document will remain posted on The Intercept website, so that could change at any time.) And we know that considerable discretion exists, at least in theory. What will ultimately vindicate or condemn that latitude is the prudence and wisdom with which the government uses it.

Yes, the government is on the public’s watch list.

Reader Reality Check

There’s real tension here between the public’s right to know and the government’s anti-terrorism efforts. Do we have our priorities right?

This article originally appeared on

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