"Who controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control whole continents; who controls money can control the world."…variations of this quote are attributed to Henry Kissinger.
This is the ominous centennial year of 1914 and “The War to End All Wars”.
In 1914 Africa had already been chopped up and divided by the colonial powers Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. It was the European squabbling for African, Asian and Middle East colonies; and their tremendous wealth that was a significant cause of WW1.
Africa has historically been absolutely vital to the industrialization of Europe as a source of natural resources and human labor. Modern Europe owes its development to the availability of Africa’s natural resources which were hauled home and then turned into finished manufactured products for value-added export.
The competition for colonies was a cause of World War I
Beginning in the late 19th century Europe dominated, divided and exploited Africa by force of arms and colonial rule. Europeans drew the map of Africa to divide and conquer it. Now with economic globalization, Africa is in play again for its natural wealth by all of the developed countries of the world. The competition is fiercer than ever.
Many of the protagonists of 1914 are the same ones today. Many of them never really left Africa. After African colonies won independence in the mid-20th century, for many of them it was just a token independence. They got a seat at the United Nations. But old colonialists simply paid off corrupt African leaders and continued to rape the continent. Few Africans benefited except the elites. For others it just brought more of the same: The Resource Curse and exploitation.
Now 100 years after World War 1, add the global dynamos of the United States, China, Japan, Russia, India, Turkey, Israel, South Korea and Brazil among the fierce competitors for Africa’s riches. All of these countries use state supported corporations, transnational corporations, world organizations, foreign aid, loans, diplomacy and military intervention to further their national agendas.
Africa exports exotic fruits, vegetables and flowers to Europe and the Middle East,
yet now has to import much of its staple food supplies from the West.
The African continent is extremely rich in scarce resources. It is rich in oil, uranium, copper, gold, platinum, tin, diamonds, timber, export-based agriculture, bio-fuels, biodiversity, land and people. As an example, a single old-growth tree from the rain forests of Africa can be worth more than $20,000 on the world market.
Africa is also rich in strategic minerals such as coltan which is essential for modern electronics such as cell phones and computers. Coltan is a hard metal that is an excellent conductor of electricity. Child and slave labor are used in places such as the (un)Democratic Republic of the Congo to mine the metal. Modern technology and the demand for coltan have resulted in armed conflict, corruption, pollution and grief for many people in Africa.
Africa is one of the few places in the world that is a source for vanadium. Vanadium gives steel more strength and flexibility. Vanadium is used in automobiles, airplanes, electronics, medical equipment, pipelines, military weapons and high-speed tools. Its importance cannot be overemphasized. Vanadium is also highly toxic and its mining causes deadly pollution.
Many children in Africa live in extreme poverty, slavery and as child soldiers.
Yet with all the richness of the African continent, most of its people live in abject poverty. Their governments do not provide them with even the most essential of services such as clean drinking water, medical care, and the availability of electricity, education and basic infrastructure. How does one explain all the poverty among all the wealth? The simple explanation is local corruption and foreign exploitation.
Global corporations and foreign nations cut deals with corrupt leaders for billions of US dollars and then turn their head while despots raid the people’s treasury. There are violence and wars in Africa between the ruthless elites fighting over the loot.
Armed gangs roam the country-side stealing the wealth and extorting protection money from foreign corporations. Private companies hire mercenaries to guard their properties and shoot trespassers on sight. Often the killed trespassers are just children trying to eke out a few dollars’ worth of minerals.
Even though Africa is an important source of natural resources the US government had ignored much of Africa for a long time as not being of strategic importance. As a result China and other powers have a big head-start over the US in Africa.
The US is no longer ignoring Africa. It is the new frontier for the American Empire. In February 2007 President George W. Bush created the United States African Command (AFRICOM). Under President Obama the US has greatly increased the military activities of AFRICOM. The US is in a high-stakes competition with China.
President Obama has greatly expanded the activities of AFRICOM.
Tensions between the two nuclear global powers have been spinning out of control. The US has very publicly announced its military pivot to Asia to militarily encircle China. The pivot to Africa has been less noise. The current war in South Sudan is a proxy war between the two. China has obtained much of the rights to the oil-riches of South Sudan. The US wants the Chinese out.
China is still fuming over having been driven out of the North African country of Libya where it was a big player in oil production. The Libyan oil is the light-sweet oil that is easier to refine. Geographically Libya is also strategically located to ship the oil to Europe.
Muammar al-Gaddafi had displeased the US with his visions of Pan African nationalism. Gaddafi had been an unreliable ally of the US in the War of Terror, so he was driven out by NATO and the US on the pretext of the Arab Spring, human rights and democracy. Never mind that Gadhafi’s Libya had ranked number 2 on the UN Human Index Scale for Africa; before the US, French and British 7 months of humanitarian bombing. Hillary Clinton bragged with mirthful laughter: “We came, we saw, he died.”
Camp Lemonier conducts “stability operations” in Africa.
The USA uses the War of Terror, humanitarian hand-wringing, the dogma of democracy and capitalism, international peacekeepers and voodoo neoliberal economics to camouflage its quest for hegemony. The USA Empire is powered by oil, military supremacy and international finance. For the oil weapon to be effective the USA needs to control all of it everywhere and all the time. To do that the US Empire has foreign military bases all over the world.
Africa is the “new Middle East” and the next frontier for the US Empire. It is already an import source of oil for China and gaining importance for the US and the world. Africa could also be the host of another protracted US military quagmire. President Obama cannot be counted upon to prevent another hot war by putting the generals and neocons on a short leash. So far that leash in Africa has been extremely slack.
The US has a heavy military presents in Africa called AFRICOM. Its stated mission is to “advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity”. It is a good rhetorical question to ask: “Security, stability and prosperity for whom: Africans, American taxpayers, empire, hegemon, oil companies, who?” AFRICOM does not say.
The USA has military bases all over the world for strategic dominance and spends more on its military than the next twenty countries combined.
The American public has grown too tired and skeptical of always blaming oil for all the US wars and foreign expeditions. Oil alone is an over-simplistic and an indolent way to explain US strategic, military and geopolitical foreign policy. Oil is not as simple as the dictionary definition of “a thick, black liquid that comes from the ground…”
Firstly, “Oil” is code that really means oil, gas, pipeline routes, sea lanes, and deep-water ports. “Oil” is all sources of energy and natural resources. It is human resources, markets, food and finance. It is anywhere and everywhere on the planet that is strategically located for US global hegemony.
Secondly, oil is a powerful financial weapon used to maintain the dominance of the US dollar. The black liquid physical commodity that comes out of the ground is mostly priced and traded in US dollars on the world market. The US dollar is backed by its ability to buy oil instead of gold.
The US Dollar was as good as gold making it the World reserve currency after World War 2.
To support the dollar the US must control the supply of all oil: Who gets it, who doesn’t get it, when, how much, at what price and in US dollars. When oil prices are high the dollar is strong. When oil prices are low the dollar is weak. This may seem counter-intuitive so an explanation follows below.
Until 1971 the US dollar was convertible into gold bullion at $35 per ounce by the US treasury. Because of the massive chronic US balance of trade deficit the world was being flooded with US dollars. Foreign governments were concerned and speculation caused a run on the US gold supply at Fort Knox.
The US literally was being dramatically drained of its gold. In desperation President Richard Nixon abandoned international agreements and closed the gold window taking the US off the official Gold Exchange Standard. The value of the dollar plunged. Still the US continued to run massive trade deficits exacerbating the problem. The world was flooded with US fiat paper currency that became known as Euro-Dollars.
The “Oil Shock” of 1973 helped to solve the Euro-dollar crises. Following the Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt, Syria and other Arab nations; the US backing of Israel resulted in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargo of oil to the US. The reduced flow of OPEC oil caused the price of it to quadruple. Initially this caused runaway inflation in the US and the worst economic crisis for the American people, at that time, since the Great Depression.
Conspiracy theories attribute the Oil Shock to the Bilderberg Group, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and Chase Bank…some conspiracies are true…but for purposes here they will be foregone. Likewise foregone are the events leading up to and President Jimmy Carter admitting the de-Peacock Throned Shah of Iran to the US for cancer treatment and the resulting “Iran hostage crisis”. Regardless, high world oil prices resulted and helped to prop up the ailing US dollar.
The Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek Netherlands was
the Sight of the first meeting of the Secretive Bilderberg Group in 1954.
The Bilderberg Group and the Conspiracies to Manipulate the Price of Oil
The important point is that the spike in world oil prices by the OPEC countries caused those Euro-Dollars to be soaked up by high oil prices. OPEC was taking those Euro-Dollars out of circulation just as the Federal Reserve Bank does when it wants to support the value of the dollar.
The US dollar is now supported by oil instead of gold.
The OPEC countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Libya and others were now hoarding US dollars that were labeled Petro-Dollars. These Petro-Dollars were then largely recycled and repatriated back to the USA.
Euro-Dollars became Petro-Dollars that OPEC used to purchase military weapons from the US for continuous wars, to threaten their neighbors and for self-defense. Petro-dollars were also used to purchase luxury consumer goods and highly tax-payer subsidized US agricultural grains.
OPEC used their surplus Petro-dollars to make financial investments in stocks and bonds, and to buy massive amounts of US treasury bills. The financial cycle of the dollar was completed without having to raid Fort Knox of its gold. Americans were able to continue buying cheap foreign imports without endangering the dollar. The world accepted US dollars because they were as good as oil.
The above brings to mind an Orwellian-ism: “Continuous war for continuous peace”…and good for the US dollar too. Here is another Orwellian contradiction: “High imported oil prices are bad for the US except when they are not”. Thus it is paramount for the US hegemon to control oil…all of it everywhere all the time.
It is also vital for the US hegemon to control oil prices. Oil prices are determined by supply and demand. Economists call that the “Law of Supply and Demand”. But it is not a real law, it is broken all the time and nobody is ever prosecuted for breaking it. Both supply and demand can be manipulated to fit US geopolitical policies.
Black Gold: The US must control all of it everywhere to back the dollar.
Today demand for oil can be virtually manipulated in the financial and commodity futures markets. Future contracts for oil can be purchased by speculators and manipulators who never plan on ever taking delivery of a single drop of oil. There are sophisticated financial derivatives that can be used by oil companies, oil producing countries, governments and speculators to corner the market in oil and driving up its price.
Virtual drilling for oil can manipulate its world market price both higher and lower.
Oil prices can also be manipulated by keeping oil off the market driving up its price. Oil can be deliberately held off the market by oil companies. US client countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other US protectorates can be encouraged to pump less oil. Non-compliant oil producing countries such as Iran can be embargoed. Others can find their oil producing capacity halted by political instability, war and violence.
With the massive trade deficit that the US has with China it is important to keep China from developing their own oil supplies at the sources. As long as China has to buy its increasing demand for oil on the world market in US dollars it is good for the dollar. As a military challenger to the US, weak though it is, the US needs to be able to cut off China’s oil supply if a war broke out between the two.
Likewise, for national security, China wants self-sufficiency in oil and to be able to access oil at the source instead of having to rely on the world market in oil. China also wants to diversify its holding of US dollars into productive assets. To grow markets and their domestic economy, China needed to go global. For all of these reasons, Africa is an important investment to China as a source of oil, raw materials such as copper, markets, land and even migration of their over-populated people.
The military might of the USA dominates world oil supply and protects the American Dollar.
One of AFRICOM’s unspoken but well known secrets is the mission to confront China. War, terrorism and political instability can and has worked havoc on China’s investments in Africa. War and political instability can shut down oil production and increase its price dramatically too. AFRICOM is very good at promoting instability to “deter and defeat transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”
Just what these transnational threats are and who benefits from deterring them AFRICOM does not say. The US taxpayer seems to benefit very little and the people of Africa not much at all. The African rulers and corporations walk away with billions of dollars.
AFRICOM Mission Statement: “…deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”
Usually high oil prices benefit US geopolitical and financial objectives. Especially if perpetual wars and the threat of wars can keep the sale of US weapons manufacturers high. All those petro-dollars then need to come back home to roost in order to pay for the wars, weapons and the aftermath of reconstruction. Wars help to sell US taxpayer subsidized surplus grains to starving refugees and to a war torn population no longer able to provide itself with food self-sufficiency.
US Foreign aid to finance weapons, the rebuilding of war-destroyed cities, infrastructure projects and food aid ends up being paid back to the US many times over. The first time US aid money is paid back to the US in when the conditions of the loan require that the money be spent for US weapons, grain, goods and services. The second time the US aid money is paid back is when it is paid back with interest. Often there is a third and even fourth time the US aid money is repaid when the loans have to be rolled-over with additional interest charged.
Just the fear of war anywhere, especially in the Middle East, can cause oil prices to spike up. The fear of peace has the opposite effect. The fear of peace drives down the price of oil. A US and Iran reconciliation could open up Iran’s vast amount of oil to the world market driving down oil prices. The oil weapon is a double-edged sword and sometimes temporary low oil prices can accomplish US geopolitical foreign policy goals just as they did in the 1980’s against the Soviet Union.
The IMF imposes austerity and foreign corporate domination on debtor nations.
As Henry Kissinger said, the world can be controlled by controlling money. By controlling oil the US controls money. It is not enough for the US to simply control enough oil to be self-sufficient. It must control all the oil everywhere, all of the time so that it can control international finance.
Another part of the US plan to control money is by dominating international financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. These organizations act as loan sharks to get countries in debt, keep them in debt and to infringe on their national sovereignty. Debtor countries lose control over their own economy and the ability to delivery vital medical care, food, fuel, infrastructure and services to their own people.
World trade organizations and trade agreements open up countries rich in natural resources to foreign exploitation. They prevent poor countries from developing their own value-added industries by keeping them dependent on the exportation of raw materials. Corrupt leaders are all too willing to enrich themselves by selling out their own countries with sweetheart deals to foreign corporations and countries.
Trade agreements prevent countries from controlling foreign investors who extract raw materials and export-driven agricultural products. These investors buy up the common land that peasants depended on for food survival. Plantations for exotic crops for export drain off scarce water with irrigation projects. Mineral extraction leaves behind toxic land, water and air pollution. The clearing of natural habitats of timber and for export-agriculture is endangering rare species.
The endangered mountain gorilla has few natural enemies other than humans.
Ironically, it has been US imposed free-trade agreements which have opened up Africa to Chinese investors. The Chinese have a policy of non-interference with the internal affairs of foreign countries. The Chinese strive for what they call win-win foreign investments.
China has gained influence by making loans that do not impose the harsh austerity voodoo-economics of the IMF and the World Bank on aid recipients and debtor countries. Nor does China subject African elites to lectures on corruption, transparency, human rights and democracy as does the often hypocritical USA.
China is not without its problems too. It is not always viewed as the benevolent savior of Africa. China often requires that foreign aid be spend on hiring Chinese companies. China often brings in its own laborers because they are skilled, do not have to be trained and work for lower wages. The use of Chinese labor does little to help the local African economies.
The US woke up to the fact that China has made vast inroads to the natural resource riches of Africa. Often China is looked upon as more favorable to do business with than is the USA. China has invested heavily in African aid. It has invested in so-called soft-diplomacy of gift-aid, infrastructure projects and favorable loans. China calls it a smart-diplomacy of win-win.
China and the USA are two of the fiercest competitors in Africa today.
The latest hot spot in US-China competition is South Sudan. The situation is complicated with civil war, ethnic and religious tensions, and billions of dollars in oil loot. The violence has international hidden hands driving the war too. Many of South Sudan’s neighbors and armed gangs have a stake in the outcome. The US would benefit from driving out China’s oil investments.
China is still fuming over the loss of their Libyan oil investments. Is China going to now watch their big investments in South Sudan end up as "dry holes" too? The USA hopes so. With the war now in South Sudan, the USA is pushing for an international trustee to take over the oil fields. An international trustee would be the first step in driving the Chinese out.
In the past 100 years three World Wars have been won or lost due to oil. In WW1 and WW2 Germany literally lost the wars because they ran out of fuel for their tanks and trucks. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union lost to the West because it went bankrupt. Low manipulated oil prices during the 1980’s helped to financially ruin the USSR. The USSR was financially dependent on the export market for its tremendous oil and gas resources.
China is going to need increasing supplies of oil and energy for future growth and development. Its sovereignty and national security depend on it being able to obtain secure sources of oil, energy and raw materials at the source. China cannot depend on the mercy of the US dominated world markets to always be willing to sell it strategic resources under any and all possible circumstances.
Africa is rich in exotic foods, culture, land, natural resources,
yet often cannot feed its own people.
The US also wants to secure its own strategic supply of oil. It too wants to diversify its dependence on the Middle East. For the US to be the hegemon it must dominate the world’s oil markets everywhere. That leaves the USA and China locked into a fierce competition for oil, gas, uranium, pipelines, sea lanes and strategic natural resources in Africa and elsewhere for a long time.
George Orwell predicted totalitarian control with perpetual war and newspeak.
George Orwell might have appreciated the double-speak of AFRICOM: “Stability from Instability”. It seems that everywhere in Africa that has oil and mineral riches, they are experiencing instability. The USA attributes instability to terrorists. Others might attribute Africa’s instability to a US war for oil and hegemony.
Peacekeepers depend on the Pentagon, in South Sudan, CAR, DRC, Uganda, Rwanda, Global Research, January 24, 2014: http://www.globalresearch.ca/peacekeepers-depend-on-the-pentagon-in-south-sudan-car-drc-uganda-rwanda/5366129
Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism: by Ha-Joon Chang (2007)
The New Scramble for Africa by Carmody (June 7, 2011).
Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill (Apr 23, 2013).
America's Deadliest Export by Blum, William (Jan 17, 2013).
Myths, Lies and Oil Wars by F. William Engdahl (June 2013)
The Obama administration has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist, according to a key government document obtained by The Intercept.
The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” a 166-page document issued last year by the National Counterterrorism Center, 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. 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.” It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted.
Over the years, the Obama and Bush Administrations have fiercely resisted disclosing the criteria for placing names on the databases—though the guidelines are officially labeled as unclassified. In May, Attorney General Eric Holder even invoked the state secrets privilege to prevent watchlisting guidelines from being disclosed in litigation launched by an American who was on the no fly list. In an affidavit, Holder called them a “clear roadmap” to the government’s terrorist-tracking apparatus, adding: “The Watchlisting Guidance, although unclassified, contains national security information that, if disclosed … could cause significant harm to national security.”
The rulebook, which The Intercept is publishing in full, was developed behind closed doors by representatives of the nation’s intelligence, military, and law-enforcement establishment, including the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, and FBI. Emblazoned with the crests of 19 agencies, it offers the most complete and revealing look into the secret history of the government’s terror list policies to date. It reveals a confounding and convoluted system filled with exceptions to its own rules, and it relies on the elastic concept of “reasonable suspicion” as a standard for determining whether someone is a possible threat. Because the government tracks “suspected terrorists” as well as “known terrorists,” individuals can be watchlisted if they are suspected of being a suspected terrorist, or if they are suspected of associating with people who are suspected of terrorism activity.
“Instead of a watchlist limited to actual, known terrorists, the government has built a vast system based on the unproven and flawed premise that it can predict if a person will commit a terrorist act in the future,” says Hina Shamsi, the head of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “On that dangerous theory, the government is secretly blacklisting people as suspected terrorists and giving them the impossible task of proving themselves innocent of a threat they haven’t carried out.” Shamsi, who reviewed the document, added, “These criteria should never have been kept secret.”
The document’s definition of “terrorist” activity includes actions that fall far short of bombing or hijacking. In addition to expected crimes, such as assassination or hostage-taking, the guidelines also define destruction of government property and damaging computers used by financial institutions as activities meriting placement on a list. They also define as terrorism any act that is “dangerous” to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.
This combination—a broad definition of what constitutes terrorism and a low threshold for designating someone a terrorist—opens the way to ensnaring innocent people in secret government dragnets. It can also be counterproductive. When resources are devoted to tracking people who are not genuine risks to national security, the actual threats get fewer resources—and might go unnoticed.
“If reasonable suspicion is the only standard you need to label somebody, then it’s a slippery slope we’re sliding down here, because then you can label anybody anything,” says David Gomez, a former senior FBI special agent with experience running high-profile terrorism investigations. “Because you appear on a telephone list of somebody doesn’t make you a terrorist. That’s the kind of information that gets put in there.”
The fallout is personal too. There are severe consequences for people unfairly labeled a terrorist by the U.S. government, which shares its watchlist data with local law enforcement, foreign governments, and “private entities.” Once the U.S. government secretly labels you a terrorist or terrorist suspect, other institutions tend to treat you as one. It can become difficult to get a job (or simply to stay out of jail). It can become burdensome—or impossible—to travel. And routine encounters with law enforcement can turn into ordeals.
In 2012 Tim Healy, the former director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, described to CBS News how watchlists are used by police officers. “So if you are speeding, you get pulled over, they’ll query that name,” he said. “And if they are encountering a known or suspected terrorist, it will pop up and say call the Terrorist Screening Center…. So now the officer on the street knows he may be dealing with a known or suspected terrorist.” Of course, the problem is that the “known or suspected terrorist” might just be an ordinary citizen who should not be treated as a menace to public safety.
Until 2001, the government did not prioritize building a watchlist system. On 9/11, the government’s list of people barred from flying included just 16 names. Today, the no fly list has swelled to tens of thousands of “known or suspected terrorists” (the guidelines refer to them as KSTs). The selectee list subjects people to extra scrutiny and questioning at airports and border crossings. The government has created several other databases, too. The largest is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), which gathers terrorism information from sensitive military and intelligence sources around the world. Because it contains classified information that cannot be widely distributed, there is yet another list, the Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB, which has been stripped of TIDE’s classified data so that it can be shared. When government officials refer to “the watchlist,” they are typically referring to the TSDB. (TIDE is the responsibility of the National Counterterrorism Center; the TSDB is managed by the Terrorist Screening Center at the FBI.)
In a statement, a spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center told The Intercept that “the watchlisting system is an important part of our layered defense to protect the United States against future terrorist attacks” and that “watchlisting continues to mature to meet an evolving, diffuse threat.” He added that U.S. citizens are afforded extra protections to guard against improper listing, and that no one can be placed on a list solely for activities protected by the First Amendment. A representative of the Terrorist Screening Center did not respond to a request for comment.
The system has been criticized for years. In 2004, Sen. Ted Kennedy complained that he was barred from boarding flights on five separate occasions because his name resembled the alias of a suspected terrorist. Two years later, CBS News obtained a copy of the no fly list and reported that it included Bolivian president Evo Morales and Lebanese parliament head Nabih Berri. One of the watchlists snared Mikey Hicks, a Cub Scout who got his first of many airport pat-downs at age two. In 2007, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a scathing report identifying “significant weaknesses” in the system. And in 2009, after a Nigerian terrorist was able to board a passenger flight to Detroit and nearly detonated a bomb sewn into his underwear despite his name having been placed on the TIDE list, President Obama admitted that there had been a “systemic failure.”
Obama hoped that his response to the “underwear bomber” would be a turning point. In 2010, he gave increased powers and responsibilities to the agencies that nominate individuals to the lists, placing pressure on them to add names. His administration also issued a set of new guidelines for the watchlists. Problems persisted, however. In 2012, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report that bluntly noted there was no agency responsible for figuring out “whether watchlist-related screening or vetting is achieving intended results.” The guidelines were revised and expanded in 2013—and a source within the intelligence community subsequently provided a copy to The Intercept.
“Concrete facts are not necessary”
The five chapters and 11 appendices of the “Watchlisting Guidance” are filled with acronyms, legal citations, and numbered paragraphs; it reads like an arcane textbook with a vocabulary all its own. Different types of data on suspected terrorists are referred to as “derogatory information,” “substantive derogatory information,” “extreme derogatory information” and “particularized derogatory information.” The names of suspected terrorists are passed along a bureaucratic ecosystem of “originators,” “nominators,” “aggregators,” “screeners,” and “encountering agencies.” And “upgrade,” usually a happy word for travellers, is repurposed to mean that an individual has been placed on a more restrictive list.
The heart of the document revolves around 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 National Counterterrorism Center. It sets a low standard—”reasonable suspicion“—for placing names on the watchlists, and offers a multitude of vague, confusing, or contradictory instructions for gauging it. In the chapter on “Minimum Substantive Derogatory Criteria”—even the title is hard to digest—the key sentence on reasonable suspicion offers little clarity:
“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.”
The rulebook makes no effort to define an essential phrase in the passage—”articulable intelligence or information.” After stressing that hunches are not reasonable suspicion and that “there must be an objective factual basis” for labeling someone a terrorist, it goes on to state that no actual facts are required:
“In determining whether a REASONABLE SUSPICION exists, due weight should be given to the specific reasonable inferences that a NOMINATOR is entitled to draw from the facts in light of his/her experience and not on unfounded suspicions or hunches. Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.”
While the guidelines nominally prohibit nominations based on unreliable information, they explicitly regard “uncorroborated” Facebook or Twitter posts as sufficient grounds for putting an individual on one of the watchlists. “Single source information,” the guidelines state, “including but not limited to ‘walk-in,’ ‘write-in,’ or postings on social media sites, however, should not automatically be discounted … the NOMINATING AGENCY should evaluate the credibility of the source, as well as the nature and specificity of the information, and nominate even if that source is uncorroborated.”
There are a number of loopholes for putting people onto the watchlists even if reasonable suspicion cannot be met.
One is clearly defined: The immediate family of suspected terrorists—their spouses, children, parents, or siblings—may be watchlisted without any suspicion that they themselves are engaged in terrorist activity. But another loophole is quite broad—”associates” who have a defined relationship with a suspected terrorist, but whose involvement in terrorist activity is not known. A third loophole is broader still—individuals with “a possible nexus” to terrorism, but for whom there is not enough “derogatory information” to meet the reasonable suspicion standard.
Americans and foreigners can be nominated for the watchlists if they are associated with a terrorist group, even if that group has not been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. They can also be treated as “representatives” of a terrorist group even if they have “neither membership in nor association with the organization.” The guidelines do helpfully note that certain associations, such as providing janitorial services or delivering packages, are not grounds for being watchlisted.
The nomination system appears to lack meaningful checks and balances. Although government officials have repeatedly said there is a rigorous process for making sure no one is unfairly placed in the databases, the guidelines acknowledge that all nominations of “known terrorists” are considered justified unless the National Counterterrorism Center has evidence to the contrary. In a recent court filing, the government disclosed that there were 468,749 KST nominations in 2013, of which only 4,915 were rejected–a rate of about one percent. The rulebook appears to invert the legal principle of due process, defining nominations as “presumptively valid.”
Profiling categories of people
While the nomination process appears methodical on paper, in practice there is a shortcut around the entire system. Known as a “threat-based expedited upgrade,” it gives a single White House official the unilateral authority to elevate entire “categories of people” whose names appear in the larger databases onto the no fly or selectee lists. This can occur, the guidelines state, when there is a “particular threat stream” indicating that a certain type of individual may commit a terrorist act.
This extraordinary power for “categorical watchlisting”—otherwise known as profiling—is vested in the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, a position formerly held by CIA Director John Brennan that does not require Senate confirmation.
The rulebook does not indicate what “categories of people” have been subjected to threat-based upgrades. It is not clear, for example, whether a category might be as broad as military-age males from Yemen. The guidelines do make clear that American citizens and green card holders are subject to such upgrades, though government officials are required to review their status in an “expedited” procedure. Upgrades can remain in effect for 72 hours before being reviewed by a small committee of senior officials. If approved, they can remain in place for 30 days before a renewal is required, and can continue “until the threat no longer exists.”
“In a set of watchlisting criteria riddled with exceptions that swallow rules, this exception is perhaps the most expansive and certainly one of the most troubling,” Shamsi, the ACLU attorney, says. “It’s reminiscent of the Bush administration’s heavily criticized color-coded threat alerts, except that here, bureaucrats can exercise virtually standard-less authority in secret with specific negative consequences for entire categories of people.”
The National Counterterrorism Center declined to provide any details on the upgrade authority, including how often it has been exercised and for what categories of people.
Pocket litter and scuba gear
The guidelines provide the clearest explanation yet of what is happening when Americans and foreigners are pulled aside at airports and border crossings by government agents. The fifth chapter, titled “Encounter Management and Analysis,” details the type of information that is targeted for collection during “encounters” with people on the watchlists, as well as the different organizations that should collect the data. The Department of Homeland Security is described as having the largest number of encounters, but other authorities, ranging from the State Department and Coast Guard to foreign governments and “certain private entities,” are also involved in assembling “encounter packages” when watchlisted individuals cross their paths. The encounters can be face-to-face meetings or electronic interactions—for instance, when a watchlisted individual applies for a visa.
In addition to data like fingerprints, travel itineraries, identification documents and gun licenses, the rules encourage screeners to acquire health insurance information, drug prescriptions, “any cards with an electronic strip on it (hotel cards, grocery cards, gift cards, frequent flyer cards),” cellphones, email addresses, binoculars, peroxide, bank account numbers, pay stubs, academic transcripts, parking and speeding tickets, and want ads. The digital information singled out for collection includes social media accounts, cell phone lists, speed dial numbers, laptop images, thumb drives, iPods, Kindles, and cameras. All of the information is then uploaded to the TIDE database.
Screeners are also instructed to collect data on any “pocket litter,” scuba gear, EZ Passes, library cards, and the titles of any books, along with information about their condition—”e.g., new, dog-eared, annotated, unopened.” Business cards and conference materials are also targeted, as well as “anything with an account number” and information about any gold or jewelry worn by the watchlisted individual. Even “animal information”—details about pets from veterinarians or tracking chips—is requested. The rulebook also encourages the collection of biometric or biographical data about the travel partners of watchlisted individuals.
The list of government entities that collect this data includes the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is neither an intelligence nor law-enforcement agency. As the rulebook notes, USAID funds foreign aid programs that promote environmentalism, health care, and education. USAID, which presents itself as committed to fighting global poverty, nonetheless appears to serve as a conduit for sensitive intelligence about foreigners.According to the guidelines, “When USAID receives an application seeking financial assistance, prior to granting, these applications are subject to vetting by USAID intelligence analysts at the TSC.” The guidelines do not disclose the volume of names provided by USAID, the type of information it provides, or the number and duties of the “USAID intelligence analysts.”
A USAID spokesman told The Intercept that “in certain high risk countries, such as Afghanistan, USAID has determined that vetting potential partner organizations with the terrorist watchlist is warranted to protect U.S. taxpayer dollars and to minimize the risk of inadvertent funding of terrorism.” He stated that since 2007, the agency has checked “the names and other personal identifying information of key individuals of contractors and grantees, and sub-recipients.”
Death and the watchlist
The government has been widely criticized for making it impossible for people to know why they have been placed on a watchlist, and for making it nearly impossible to get off. The guidelines bluntly state that “the general policy of the U.S. Government is to neither confirm nor deny an individual’s watchlist status.” But the courts have taken exception to the official silence and footdragging: In June, a federal judge described the government’s secretive removal process as unconstitutional and “wholly ineffective.”
The difficulty of getting off the list is highlighted by a passage in the guidelines stating that an individual can be kept on the watchlist, or even placed onto the watchlist, despite being acquitted of a terrorism-related crime. The rulebook justifies this by noting that conviction in U.S. courts requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas watchlisting requires only a reasonable suspicion. Once suspicion is raised, even a jury’s verdict cannot erase it.
Not even death provides a guarantee of getting off the list. The guidelines say the names of dead people will stay on the list if there is reason to believe the deceased’s identity may be used by a suspected terrorist–which the National Counterterrorism Center calls a “demonstrated terrorist tactic.” In fact, for the same reason, the rules permit the deceased spouses of suspected terrorists to be placed onto the list after they have died.
For the living, the process of getting off the watchlist is simple yet opaque. A complaint can be filed through the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, which launches an internal review that is not subject to oversight by any court or entity outside the counterterrorism community. The review can result in removal from a watchlist or an adjustment of watchlist status, but the individual will not be told if he or she prevails. The guidelines highlight one of the reasons why it has been difficult to get off the list—if multiple agencies have contributed information on a watchlisted individual, all of them must agree to removing him or her.
If a U.S. citizen is placed on the no fly list while abroad and is turned away from a flight bound for the U.S., the guidelines say they should be referred to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, which is prohibited from informing them why they were blocked from flying. According to the rules, these individuals can be granted a “One-Time Waiver” to fly, though they will not be told that they are traveling on a waiver. Back in the United States, they will be unable to board another flight.
The document states that nominating agencies are “under a continuing obligation” to provide exculpatory information when it emerges. It adds that the agencies are expected to conduct annual reviews of watchlisted American citizens and green card holders. It is unclear whether foreigners—or the dead—are reviewed at the same pace. As the rulebook notes, “watchlisting is not an exact science.”
Josh Begley, Lynn Dombek, and Peter Maass contributed to this story.
Photo credits: TSA: G.J. McCarthy/Dallas Morning News/Corbis (2); Guidance: Josh Begley; White House: Win McNamee/Getty Images; Airport: Nick Ut/AP Photo