Diluting the terror watch lists

Since the attacks on the Boston Marathon, and the investigation of the Tsarnaev brothers, there has been much discussion about terror watch lists. When Russian intelligence officials warned both the FBI and CIA that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a potential threat, he was put on a massive list known as TIDE. The initial FBI investigation found nothing to warrant his entry into more exclusive, and therefore more intrusive, groupings such as the No Fly List or the Selectee List. It seems more confusing than it ought to be and not, it appears, perfectly synched, as each intelligence agency works under different standards and legal guidelines.

This week, another terrorism watch list will be announced, known as the state sponsors of terrorism list. It is a formal designation that began in December 1979 and serves as the State Department’s ranking of countries that “repeatedly provide . . . support for acts of international terrorism.” Nations currently on the list include Iran, Sudan, and Syria. It also includes Cuba. Whatever historical complaints or ideological rifts the United States may have with its close neighbor, Cuba should be off the state sponsor list. It is time to take our terror designations seriously.

The state sponsor list is not just name-calling, though there is an element of shaming in the public condemnation. Countries are subject to strict sanctions, including a ban on arms-related sales, controls over commercial exports, and prohibitions of economic assistance.


Cuba seems to be on the list because, as previous State Department assessments have determined, it supports revolutionary movements in Latin America and gives direct support in terms of training and arms to “guerrilla groups” and, note the turn of phrase here, their “terrorist operations.” Cuba’s support includes safe haven to members of Columbia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as FARC, which has waged an insurgency there but is now engaged in peace negotiations.

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None of this has to do with the United States and its direct safety and security. Sure, the FARC and other guerrilla groups have destabilized the region, but that has nothing to do with terrorist threats to the United States.

The state sponsor list is no longer about terrorism. Pakistan, for example, is not on it. Domestic politics, not terror, explain Cuba’s status as our neighborly pariah. The continuing isolation of Cuba is inexplicable in modern times.

It is no longer legitimate to simply claim that the electoral map — with a powerful anti-Castro lobby based in Florida — is a sufficient explanation, as if only the politically naive would think otherwise. Even if such blatantly political justifications were valid, the Cuban-American community is actually quite divided about overtures to a nation whose progress and fiscal security can benefit the entire region.

The Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender reported this year that Secretary of State John Kerry was reviewing the policy, hoping to thaw relations with Cuba and make the terrorist state sponsor list be about terrorism. It’s not clear if Kerry’s views will prevail.


Today, however, the necessity to remove Cuba from the list is immediate. We need to rationalize these terror lists, whether they designate individuals or countries. The term “state sponsor of terrorism” means nothing if Cuba is on the list: It simply says we kind of don’t like you and will find any reason to make it hurt. An over-inclusive list, as we are seeing in the Boston case, can be as damaging as an under-inclusive one.

The Obama administration can make a powerful symbolic statement about Cuba and begin a slow thaw that starts with freeing the island nation from the same designation we give to Syria or Iran. Alone, that is enough. But the United States can also make a significant safety statement about terrorism generally: States that support those who pose a direct threat to the United States will suffer. Unfortunately, if the United States continues to use one of the most powerful tools in its national security apparatus — a figurative arsenal of sanctions — to treat a nation as a terrorist threat when it is not, we so dilute the term that it matters little to the countries that we hope to isolate.

Cuba is a lot of things, but it is not a direct national security challenge to the United States or its citizens. If Cuba remains on that exclusive list this week, we will do more damage to ourselves than any Castro brother ever did.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.