Reports Cite Lack of Uniform Policy for Terrorist Watch List
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Almost seven years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government is still struggling to establish a uniform procedure to put people on its master watch list of known or suspected terrorists, according to two government reports out this month.
The reports' findings come after criticism from privacy advocates that problems with the watch list hamper the government's ability to identify terrorists and do not ensure that innocent Americans are not included.
A inspector general's report for the office of the Director of National Intelligence found that "the nomination processes and procedures vary across the intelligence community, causing inconsistencies and disproportionate responsibilities in making nominations," according to spokesman Ross Feinstein.
A report issued yesterday by the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, came to much the same conclusion regarding the FBI and six partner agencies.
As a result, the director of national intelligence is drafting a policy to ensure that uniform standards and procedures are used across the intelligence community, said Carl Kropf, a spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center. The center, which falls under the DNI, handles the portion of the watch list that deals with international terrorism cases.
Fine's report examined practices from June to October 2007 and described inconsistent methods used by the FBI and other Justice Department agencies to submit names for inclusion on the watch list. The FBI and other agencies share intelligence reports that can, without the agencies' knowledge, form the basis for a person's inclusion on the list.
He also noted several violations of FBI policy. Agency field offices, for instance, have submitted names of people who are not subjects of terrorism investigations directly to the National Counterterrorism Center. In doing so, they bypass the required headquarters review that could catch errors, the report says.
The FBI does not always update records with new information about the subject of an investigation, the report found, and watch-list nominations from field offices were "often incomplete or contained inaccuracies." Fine found delays of up to four months in submitting information to headquarters, although FBI policy allows only 10 days.
"Accurate and current identifying information is critical for identifying suspected terrorists during screening practices, lowering the risk to frontline screening personnel and reducing misidentifications of innocent individuals who are not suspected terrorists," Fine said.
Fine noted that the FBI, which is the only Justice Department entity with a formal policy for "nominating" people to the list, made more than 8,000 watch-list nominations between January 2005 and November 2007. The FBI had "sound record management procedures" for standard nominations, he said.
The government's terrorist screening database is run by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center. It consolidates a dozen government watch lists as well as a growing number of new sources, such as airline passenger data. The government has said it will keep the data for as long as 99 years and plans to expand the data sharing to some private-sector groups.
As of last April, it contained more than 720,000 records -- one person could have multiple records.
For subjects of a counterterrorism investigation, FBI policy requires that the case agent forward a nomination "package" to the Terrorist Review and Examination Unit (TREX) at FBI headquarters. In domestic terrorism cases, the unit sends the nomination directly to the Terrorist Screening Center. In international cases, TREX reviews and approves the nomination, then forwards it to the counterterrorism center.
Since a 2005 executive order that required better sharing of terrorism information among agencies, many Justice Department components are now sharing such data with counterterrorism agencies. Field agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration share with the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, often informally. One DEA office reviews field reports and shares summaries of useful information with intelligence community agencies, including the counterterrorism center. Though the DEA did not know it, the center was creating watch-list nominations from DEA intelligence documents, Fine reported.
As of October 2007, the counterterrorism center reported that 40 records in its database were sourced to the DEA. Likewise, there were about 350 nominations in the database sourced without its knowledge to the U.S. National Central Bureau, an agency that facilitates international law enforcement cooperation.
FBI officials said the bureau has already made some improvements, including requiring field office supervisors to review watch-list nominations for accuracy and completeness.