The Intercept, an online news site founded by an associate of leaker Edward Snowden, reports that a classified government database of confirmed or suspected terrorists has doubled in size since March, 2010, three months after an airliner was nearly blown up over Detroit by a member of al-Qaeda.
At first, the rapid growth of the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database seems a sensible response by security officials to a narrowly avoided catastrophe. People whose names appear on the watch list are restricted in their ability to board commercial airliners flying into or out of the United States. That reduces the risk of a domestic attack.
But the Intercept report casts the list in a different light. It says 40 percent of those named — including 5,000 U.S. citizens — were not affiliated with terrorist agents or groups. So why were they on the list?
It’s possible, given past practice, that many individuals were targeted based on little more than intuition, racism, or religious prejudice. If they have no legitimate ties to treacherous activity, they evidently are guilty until proven innocent.
This would not be the first time the government may have abused its investigative authority. Last month, Human Rights Watch accused FBI counterterrorism officers of indiscriminately targeting Muslim centers and mosques, often without hard evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Security authorities cannot be expected to produce incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing by every person it puts on a terror watch list. Yet such a list should be the result not of a fishing expedition, but of analysis based on sound fact.
Otherwise, the government risks infringing on civil liberties — the very freedoms the nation seeks to protect.