Report: Nearly half on watchlist unconnected to terrorist groups

More than 40 percent of the people on the government’s database of possible terrorist suspects have no connection to any known terror group, according to a new report.

Classified government documents obtained by the Intercept show that of the 680,000 people on the watchlist of “known or suspected terrorists,” 280,000 have “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” That accounts for a much larger share than people suspected of being connected to al Qaeda, the Taliban or other organizations.

As of last August, 5,000 Americans were on the watchlist, according to a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) slide obtained by the news outlet. The largest number of suspects live in New York City, followed by the largely Arab-American town of Dearborn, Mich.

Each day, there are approximately 900 changes to the watchlist as new names are added or existing records supplemented with additional information, the Intercept added.

The watchlist is the government’s main tool for sharing details about possible terrorists with foreign governments and local police. It is different from the smaller no-fly list, which bars some people from boarding commercial flights in the U.S., and a larger classified system shared across American intelligence agencies.

That larger list, known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), contains information about more than a million people, according to the NCTC documents.

After last year’s bombing at the Boston Marathon, that information has included biometric data about 144,000 people, including fingerprints, eye scans and facial images. To help compile that database, at least 15 states and the District of Columbia are working to give agents access to pictures from people’s driver’s licenses.

The Intercept report comes weeks after the news outlet revealed that federal guidelines for the watchlist are broad enough to include people who are dead or have been acquitted in court of terrorism charges.

The government does not need “concrete facts” or “irrefutable evidence” to add people to the watchlist, the guidance declared, just a "reasonable suspicion" that someone could be connected to a terrorist activity.

Spokespeople with the National Counterterrorism Center did not immediately respond to questions from The Hill, but the agency told the Intercept that the TIDE system was a “critical layer in our counterterrorism defenses.”