Democrats need to stop playing politics with the terror watch list

In the wake of the Paris attacks, Republicans have come out with a number of mind-boggling proposals for how to prevent such events from transpiring in the United States. These have included, but are not limited to:

And so on. As each one of these proposals has been offered up by an increasingly frantic Republican field, progressives have been right to be outraged. Not only would none of the above proposals prevent a Paris-style attack, in which citizens of the host country use homemade and (in the US) legally-purchased weapons to attack large public gatherings, but many of them would also constitute gross violations of our civil liberties.

However, Republicans have not been alone in making cynical proposals in response to the attacks that would exploit anti-Muslim sentiments to restrict civil liberties. Democrats in Congress, with at least one Republican co-sponsor in New York Congressman Peter King, are pushing a bill that would prohibit anyone on the FBI’s Terror Watch List from buying a gun, highlighting a Government Accountability Office report showing that over 2,000 people on the list legally purchased guns between 2004 and 2014. The Bush administration supported a similar bill in 2007. Both bills were immediately scuttled by the NRA.

Not only is this bad policy, it isn’t even good politics. Rather than driving a wedge between NRA absolutists and foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party, they’ve cross-pressured liberals into deciding whether proving a symbolic point on gun control — See? These gun nuts are so gun-nutty they won’t even keep TERRORISTS from having guns! — is more important than deconstructing anti-Muslim bigotry both in government policy and our broader culture.

One would think that self-described progressives wouldn’t need a refresher on exactly how much of a civil liberties nightmare the terror watch list has been since its inception in 2003. But here we go:

Muslim man via Shutterstock

A Muslim man who could have been added to the watch list for tweeting a joke about posing for Shutterstock

You don’t need to do anything specific to get on the terror watch list. The FBI reads your tweets, tracks where you travel and even watches how you walk — all of which can be used to nominate you for placement on the watch list. Nominations are rarely rejected, and probable cause of committing an actual crime is almost never considered. What’s more, once you’re on the list, there’s no way to challenge your placement — you usually can’t even find out why you were placed on the list. Oh, and your friends and family members could get added to the list simply because you’re on it, because why not?

Those who are on the terror watch list aren’t even really suspected of plotting terror attacks, to say nothing of having been charged with actual crimes. They’re simply people the government has at some point decided to flag because of probably-unrelated actions that they or their family member did — most likely years ago. The ACLU estimates that well over a million citizens are currently on the watch list. The Intercept reported that the FBI processed 468,749 nominations for the watch list in 2013 alone — and again, nominations are rarely rejected. In short, the net is cast as wide as possible.

The terror watch list was created in post-9/11 hysteria, and was (rightly) decried by progressives at the time as being little more than a legally neutral way for the government to make it harder for brown people to get on airplanes in order to give the rest of the country the illusion of safety — exactly what we’ve spent the last week calling conservatives out for. So while those on the right are up in arms (figuratively, for now) over the prospect of the terror watch list being used by President Obama as a means of taking away their guns, they aren’t exactly wrong to point out that restricting gun access based on the unverifiable and unchallengeable suspicion of thoughtcrime ten years ago is a bad road to go down. As the National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke put it:

You will note, I hope, that [Harry] Reid, [Chuck] Schumer, [Reid’s Deputy Chief of Staff Adam] Jentleson, and co. are not proposing to place restrictions on those who have been “accused,” “charged,” or “convicted,” but upon those who are “suspected.” They are not referring to those who are working their way through the judicial system, but to those who remain outside of it. They are not seeking to limit the rights of those who are out on bail or awaiting trial, but those who have not so much as been handcuffed. Loudly and proudly, they are arguing in favor of removing fundamental rights from anyone whose name has been written down on a list. Because they hope to confuse the public, their talk is peppered with references to “Paris-style” “assault” rifles and “automatic” weapons. But this is a red herring: Their proposal applies equally to guns of all types, not just those that give Shannon Watts and Diane Feinstein the willies.

Cooke is concerned with restrictions on gun rights, but the point can be applied to civil liberties more generally. As a matter of fact, it’s a decent argument in favor of getting rid of the watch list entirely. To be clear, Cooke’s readers would lose their gun-clutching minds if President Obama proposed doing so, or even if he called for reforming the watch list so that it was harder to be placed on it and easier to challenge your placement. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point: This watch list in its current form shouldn’t be used for much of anything. If that happens to include restricting gun purchases, then so be it.

At the end of the day, it’s odd, to say the least, that the same self-described progressives who say they’re concerned about attempts by our government to demonize Muslims and erode civil liberties at the same time now want to take the prime example of that combination seriously as a counterterrorism tool. By pushing the idea, they’re granting the watch list legitimacy that it never deserved.

All for the sake of saying toldyaso to the NRA.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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16 Responses to “Democrats need to stop playing politics with the terror watch list”

  1. Bill_Perdue says:

    Agreed. It’ll be used to inflame islamist homophobia as if much more of that was needed.

  2. Bill_Perdue says:

    The worst thing the Democrats have done is to endorse, tacitly or otherwise, Obama’s racist murders of six (that we know of) Arab and muslim US citizens, Ahmed Farouq, Adam Gadahn, Anwar al-Aulaqi, Samir Khan, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi and Jude Mohammed.

    The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have roundly condemned these presidential murders but Democrat and Republican politicians either support them or keep silent, a clear indication of the vileness of Obama’s policy.

    As the 2016 vote gets closer look for the Obama regime to replay the Bush regimes strategy of calling an alert when the opposition is polling well.

  3. confusion says:

    Very good advice. Texas is Scarry.

  4. confusion says:

    Forgiveness is a two way street’fighter’..

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  6. nicho says:

    We hear a lot about “thawarted attacks.” Most of them have been FBI/CIA stings designed to entrap people. Most of them were unworkable.

    Hey, I stopped four wars yesterday. But you never hear about my war-stopping expertise.

  7. nicho says:

    Armed Muslim haters in Texas post names and addresses of local Muslims online. One more reason, among so many, to stay as far the fuck away from Texas as possible.

  8. nicknow says:

    You never hear about the attacks that don’t happen. If they stop 99 out of 100 you’ll only here of the 1 and conclude that the program was a failure, when in fact it had succeeded 99 times.

    Are these agencies perfect? No. Have they gotten much better? Yes. And they’ll continue to improve as they learn from their failures.

  9. nicho says:

    connecting the dots and nothing more.

    And if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that our intelligence agencies are way too inept to connect any dots. Any time something bad happens, it turns out they had all the data, but failed to connect the dots.

  10. Ol' Hippy says:

    The big problem with the terror watch list is what, or who, is determining how one is placed on said list. Then if one finds they are on the list what can they do to address the problem. It smells of past witch hunts, which only served to further an agenda deemed necessary. So we now find ourself on the list and wonder what we can do to clear our name. These types of things are indeed dangerous, and really don’t serve a purpose other than a means of the govt. to reduce our rights and lock down society. This is also another way to further restrict citizens legal purchase of firearms too, after all only “radicals” would be “against” terrorists purchasing weapons. These lists are a very dangerous trend and increase every time something bad happens. Beware though because you never know when you’ll be placed on a “list” with no redress of said action or even a reason for being placed on the list.

  11. nicknow says:

    The Terrorist Watch List, if used appropriately, is a good idea that improves public safety. It is when we start using it – as proposed by the legislation discussed here – that it starts becoming problematic. The intent of the watch list is to give law enforcement a place to determine if an individual has been flagged by another agency as having a possible connection to terrorism.

    For example, if the NSA picks up foreign communications indicating John Doe may have been sent to the US to organize terrorist cells his name might be put on the list. If the NYPD JTTF finds John Doe during the course of their work they can then look to the watch list and learn that additional information is available. This is how it is supposed to work and it solves a primary law-enforcement failure leading up to 9/11 – the inability to connect the dots to detect the plot (The 9/11 Commission Report covered this in detail.)

    Rightfully, we should be concerned when the list is used for MORE than just connecting the dots – inclusion on the list should NOT be a bar to anything.

    To that end, we have the No Fly List – which is a subset of the Terrorist Watch List. The important difference is that the No Fly List has a due process procedure (DHS TRIP) to allow people to have their names removed.

    The current process flags anyone purchasing a gun that is on the Terrorist Watch List through the standard background check. It is then up to background check reviewer to determine if the sale can go through (based on the entirety of the background check) and it trigger monitoring agencies that an individual has purchased a weapon.

    Blanket denial doesn’t make much sense and might give potential terrorists an indicator they are on the watch list. For example, imagine that John Doe is on the list because of suspicion that he is fundraising for a group sponsoring terrorism in eastern Africa. There is no suspicion that he himself is involved in carrying out attacks. If he attempts to buy a 9 MM for self-defense do we really want him to be denied? He is unlikely to pose a danger to society with a 9 MM but if we deny him he may become suspicious he is being watched thus cutting off contact with others in his network – to the detriment of law enforcement that was monitoring his contacts.

    The current system of per-purchase monitoring works. Merely because a name is on the Terrorist Watch List doesn’t mean that person has or will do anything illegal. The Terrorist Watch List’s use should be limited to that which it was intended for: connecting the dots and nothing more.

  12. nicho says:

    The minute they started putting anti-war protestors and environmental activists on the list, the list became a joke. It’s merely an updated version of Nixon’s “enemies list.” As usual, the government is serving its own interests — not ours.

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  15. Indigo says:

    It occurs to me that a workable watch list should be a government secret, accessible only to whoever is monitoring the list. That would be one of the functions of the “Secret Government” that we don’t actually know about in any detail. The lists talked about here are for show, the real surveillance, if there is any, goes on at a more clandestine level.

  16. hiker_sf says:

    Even Canada is talking about discriminating – against heterosexual men – by not allowing Syrian refugees who are single men come to Canada unless they are gay. I’m sure that it is well-intentioned, but it is wrong.

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