Terror Suspect List Yields Few Arrests

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By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007

The government's terrorist screening database flagged Americans and foreigners as suspected terrorists almost 20,000 times last year. But only a small fraction of those questioned were arrested or denied entry into the United States, raising concerns among critics about privacy and the list's effectiveness.

A range of state, local and federal agencies as well as U.S. embassies overseas rely on the database to pinpoint terrorism suspects, who can be identified at borders or even during routine traffic stops. The database consolidates a dozen government watch lists, as well as a growing amount of information from various sources, including airline passenger data. The government said it was planning to expand the data-sharing to private-sector groups with a "substantial bearing on homeland security," though officials would not be more specific.

Few specifics are known about how the system operates, how many people are detained or turned back from borders, or the criteria used to identify suspects. The government will not discuss cases, nor will it confirm whether an individual's name is on its list.

Slightly more than half of the 20,000 encounters last year were logged by Customs and Border Protection officers, who turned back or handed over to authorities 550 people, most of them foreigners, Customs officials said. FBI and other officials said that they could not provide data on the number of people arrested or denied entry for the other half of the database hits. FBI officials indicated that the number of arrests was small.

The government says the database is a powerful tool for identifying and tracking suspected terrorists and for sharing intelligence, and that its purpose is not necessarily to make arrests. But the new details about the numbers, disclosed in an FBI budget document and in interviews, raise questions about the database's effectiveness and its impact on privacy, critics said. They argued that the number of hits relative to arrests was alarmingly high and indicated that the threshold for including someone on a watch list was too low, potentially violating thousands of Americans' civil liberties when they are stopped.

David Sobel, senior counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy organization, said the numbers "suggest a staggeringly high rate of false positives with respect to the identification of supposed terrorists." He added that "this really confirms the long-standing fear that this list is inaccurate and ultimately ineffective as an anti-terrorism tool."

Jayson P. Ahern, deputy commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said focusing on arrests misses "a much larger universe" of suspicious U.S. citizens.

"There are many potentially dangerous individuals who fly beneath the radar of enforceable actions and who are every bit as sinister as those we intercept," he said.

The database is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, a joint operation between the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Rick Kopel, the TSC's deputy director, called it "one of the best things the government has been able to accomplish since 9/11."

The government said private-sector entities with a "substantial bearing on homeland security" could also gain access to the data, which is kept for 99 years, according to a notice in the Federal Register this week.

The watch list includes information from the Transportation Security Administration's air passenger "no-fly" list, the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System list and the FBI's Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File.

To be included in the database, a person must be "a known or suspected terrorist such as those who finance terrorist activities, are known members of a terrorist organizations, terrorist operatives, or someone that provides material support to a terrorist or terrorist organization," said Michelle Petrovich, a spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center. According to the Justice Department's inspector general, the database contained at least 235,000 records as of last fall.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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