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Terrorism watch list has errors, audit finds

Tue., March 18, 2008

WASHINGTON – The government’s terrorism watch list includes inaccurate and outdated information, increasing the risk that innocent people will be misidentified as terrorists while terrorists are overlooked, a government audit reported Monday.

The report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine recommended that the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies improve their coordination of how terrorism suspects’ names are added to and removed from the list to avoid future problems.

Fine’s report helps explain why innocent travelers continue to be misidentified as terrorism suspects despite efforts by the federal government to improve its databases of more than 900,000 watch list names. Agents rely on the watch list when screening airline passengers and processing border crossers and visa applicants.

Although agents describe the watch list as invaluable in helping them detect terrorists, high-profile blunders have underscored its flaws, such as when agents repeatedly blocked Sen. Ted Kennedy from boarding a plane because his name was similar to that of a terrorism suspect.

The Terrorist Screening Center oversees the watch list, while the National Counterterrorism Center and the FBI recommend or “nominate” names for it.

In Monday’s report, Fine said that federal agencies had set up procedures to catch errors but didn’t always remove outdated records from the watch list. And agents in the FBI’s 56 field offices often provided incomplete or inaccurate information when selecting or “nominating” names, he said.

Fine suggested the FBI require that supervisors review nominations. He also recommended that the Justice Department take the lead in improving coordination of the process. Officials with the FBI and the Terrorist Screening Center said Fine’s proposals either were already being adopted or would be within six months.

Tim Sparapani, the senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the watch list “is getting worse over time, not better.” The ACLU favors a watch list modeled on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Lists that would determine which suspects have the “means, motive and opportunity” to commit a terrorist act.


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