The 166-page “sensitive security information” document that details how the government decides whether someone should be on a terrorist watchlist has been leaked to the press.

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The March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance was initially released by the Intercept (Image source: screenshot).

The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” issued last year as an update by the National Counterterrorism Center to the original 2010 document, spells out the government’s secret rules for putting individuals on its main terrorist database, as well as the no fly list and the selectee list, which triggers enhanced screening at airports and border crossings. According to The Intercept:

“The new guidelines allow individuals to be designated as representatives of terror organizations without any evidence they are actually connected to such organizations, and it gives a single White House official the unilateral authority to place ‘entire categories’ of people the government is tracking onto the no fly and selectee lists. It broadens the authority of government officials to ‘nominate’ people to the watchlists based on what is vaguely described as ‘fragmentary information’.”

Surprisingly, the document also allows for deceased individuals to be on the watchlist as well. The names of suspected terrorists known to be dead typically remain in the database, as long as there is “reasonable suspicion” that someone else is using their identity.

People who are acquitted of terrorism crimes, who “may nevertheless meet the REASONABLE SUSPICION standard and appropriately remain on, or be nominated to, the Terrorist Watchlist,” may also remain on the watchlist, the guidance said.

The 2013 National Counterterrorism Center document was initially revealed by the Intercept Wednesday.

The crux of the document are the rules for placing individuals on a watchlist. “All executive departments and agencies,” the document says, are responsible for collecting and sharing information on terrorist suspects with the NCC. The guidance continues:

“To meet the REASONABLE SUSPICION standard, the NOMINATOR, based on the totality of the circumstances, must rely upon articulable intelligence or information which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrants a determination that an individual is known or suspected to be or has been knowingly engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to TERRORISM and/or TERRORIST ACTIVITIES.”

Though the information is technically unclassified, the leaked document is labeled “For Official Use Only” and “Sensitive Security Information” and administration officials have resisted publicizing details about the watchlist, out of fear that terrorists could use it to avoid capture .

The guidance —  developed by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and other agencies, and — has broad legal definitions that are certain to cause backlash from civil liberties defenders, but is also specific in detailing certain protected first amendment rights, such as free speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

“First amendment protected activity alone shall not be the basis for nominating an individual for inclusion on the Terrorist Watchlist,” it reads. It calls for “reasonable minds” to prevail even when disagreeing on a record of an individual, and says additional review and consideration will be given to those cases. 

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The guidance shares “the following is a chart depicting the collection, TERRORIST nomination, consolidation and screening process.” (Image source: screenshot).

The document also reveals the potential faults in the watchlisting process.

“This Watchlisting 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 judgements may differ regarding whether subjective criteria have been met.”

Given the reality of these limitations, “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.”

The head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, Hina Shamsi, accused the government of “secretly blacklisting people as suspected terrorists” with the watchlist, according to The Hill.

(H/T: The Intercept)

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter.