By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 7, 2007
The government's master watch list of known or suspected terrorists continues to be marred by errors and inconsistencies that can obstruct the capture of terrorists or cause innocent people to be detained by U.S. authorities, the Justice Department's inspector general said yesterday.
As one of the most powerful intelligence tools created by the Bush administration after the 2001 attacks, the watch list is used to screen about 270 million people a month and its content can determine whether people are allowed to fly on airplanes or detained after routine traffic stops.
Its size has more than quadrupled since its creation in 2004, to the point that it contained more than 720,000 records as of April, according to the new report. It is growing at the rate of more than 20,000 records a month.
But Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said its management by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) "continues to have significant weaknesses," producing a high error rate and a slow response to complaints from citizens.
In an examination of 105 records, for example, the auditors found that 38 percent of the records contained errors or inconsistencies that the TSC's own quality-assurance efforts had not found. They also discovered that the TSC is operating two versions of the database in tandem without ensuring that their contents are identical, which they said could result in missed opportunities to identify terrorists.
"It is critical that the TSC further improve the quality of its watchlist data because of the consequences of inaccurate or missing information," Fine said in a statement. "Inaccurate, incomplete and obsolete watchlist information can increase the risk of not identifying known or suspected terrorists, and it can also increase the risk that innocent persons will be stopped or detained."
The report, a follow-up to a 2005 audit, noted that the TSC has opened an office to deal with complaints, and that 438 have been registered so far. But auditors found that the office typically took more than two months to resolve them.
In 97 of the 388 complaints resolved as of February, the TSC found that the watch-list record was inaccurate or incomplete. In an additional 76 instances a person's name was removed from the watch list, and in other cases people were misidentified or their records wound up being modified. The whole process was complicated by the fact that the government generally does not reveal a person's watch-list status to avoid tipping off terrorists.
The report attributed some problems to the fact that the FBI can directly enter international terrorist information into the database while bypassing the TSC and the National Counterterrorism Center, which is responsible for vetting such information. That bypass creates unnecessary data errors, the report said.
The review found that nearly half the initial name matches against the watch list proved worthless, suggesting that the government should consider misidentifications a priority and develop policies to address them, Fine said.
The inspector general's staff also identified 20 watch-list records on suspected or known terrorists that had not been made available to front-line screening agents such as Border Patrol officers, visa application reviewers and local police officers who use the list during routine traffic stops.
"The new report confirms a widespread impression that the watch-list system still needs work," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "Not only are too many innocent people being listed in error, some of the bad guys are not properly included."
The TSC, created in December 2003 at the president's direction and run jointly by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, is a single point of contact for screeners and police seeking help in identifying people with possible ties to terrorism. The TSC database is a consolidation of a dozen different government watch lists, such as the Transportation Security Administration's "no-fly" list, the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System, and the FBI's Violent Gang and Terrorist Organizations File.
In a reply to Fine, Willie T. Hulon, executive assistant director of the FBI's National Security Branch, said that "the FBI remains committed to ensuring the timely and accurate collection of watchlisting data." He said a TSC priority is to ensure that the database is "accurate, current and thorough." For example, as of July, the TSC has completely vetted the TSA's no-fly list, reducing it by about half, he said.
TSC officials said in a statement that they have acted or will act on each of the recommendations.
The inspector general's report is available on the Web at http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/reports/FBI/a0741/final.pdf.