Audit faults FBI's watch list data

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Adding to complaints about one of the nation's primary counterterrorism safety nets, a Justice Department audit has concluded that the FBI provided the governmentwide terrorism watch list with incomplete, inaccurate and outdated information on suspects for nearly three years.

As a result, many innocent people stayed on the "Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist" long after they were cleared of any wrongdoing, and real threats to national security were sometimes left off the list or not added to it in a timely manner, according to the audit, released yesterday by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.

The watch list was established by presidential directive in September 2003 so that law enforcement and intelligence officials could have a uniform database of terrorist suspects, enabling agencies to screen out those trying to enter the country and flag others domestically if a computer check has been run on their name. It is managed by the Terrorist Screening Center, which is overseen by the Justice Department and staffed by personnel from the Justice, Homeland Security and State departments and other agencies.

The audit also found that other agencies within the Justice Department had problems in the way they submitted names to the watch list - primarily that they did not ensure that individuals were taken off the list once cleared of any suspicion or wrongdoing. Those agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Cynthia Schnedar, a spokeswoman for Fine, said the inspector general and his staff had no comment, preferring to let the audit to speak for itself. The unclassified version of the report did not say how many people were wrongly added to, or left off of, the list, but it did say that the FBI alone had 3,417 standard watch list nominations in 2005, 2,568 in 2006 and 2,255 from Jan. 1 to Nov. 29, 2007.

Other government entities that submit names to the list, including several intelligence agencies, are conducting their own audits, but most have not made their findings public, Schnedar said.

The Justice Department audit found that the FBI did have the proper training and other internal controls to help ensure that names were accurately added to, and removed from, the list. But it criticized the bureau for failing to consistently pass along newly discovered information to either include suspects on the list or remove them when they were no longer deemed a threat.

FBI field agents also added large numbers of names to the watch list without proper vetting or quality control, and other submissions "were often incomplete or contained inaccuracies, which caused delays in the processing of nominations," the audit concluded.

In addition to making formal submissions to the list, the FBI also prepares terrorist-related intelligence reports that it circulates to other government agencies. Suspects named in those reports were added to the watch list by the National Counterterrorism Center. "However, because the FBI was not aware of this NCTC practice, the FBI was not monitoring the records to ensure that they were updated or removed when necessary," the audit found.

In some cases, FBI agents waited as long as four months before forwarding the names of terrorism suspects whom they had begun formally investigating, even though bureau policy required that the process be started within 10 days of the start of an investigation, the audit said.

Officials from the FBI and the Justice Department said they were working to correct deficiencies and address the audit's recommendations. Some problems already have been fixed and the rest will be soon, FBI Assistant Director John Miller said in a statement, noting the need "to ensure the proper balance between national security protection and the need for accurate, efficient and streamlined watchlisting processes."

Privacy advocates said that the audit was further proof that the watch list was unwieldy, inaccurate and badly mismanaged, especially when it came to taking innocent people off the list.

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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