FBI's Lapses on Terrorist Watch List Put Nation at Risk, Report Warns

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By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

The FBI has retained almost 24,000 names on the nation's terrorist watch list without current or proper justification, while failing to include people who are subjects of terrorist investigations, according to a Justice Department report issued yesterday.

The FBI's lapses "create a risk to national security," Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in the report. In addition, he said, keeping people on the list improperly can lead to unnecessary delays for travelers at airports, along highways and elsewhere.

The results also underscore concerns raised by civil liberties advocates about the list's accuracy and transparency, and its impact on those who are inappropriately listed -- or confused with someone who is on the list.

The watch list, maintained by the FBI and fed by a number of government agencies, was created in 2004. As of September, it contained about 400,000 names. With aliases, the list grows to 1.1 million. About 2 percent of the 400,000 were placed on the list by the FBI, officials at the agency said.

The report offers the most complete account to date of the flaws in the way the FBI nominates people for and removes them from the watch list. The report comes in the wake of an audit from last May that focused on the lack of uniform nomination procedures across agencies.

Of the 68,000 submissions that the FBI has made to the watch list since 2004, almost 24,000, or 35 percent, were sourced to old or non-terrorism investigations, the report found. In a sampling of cases, Fine's staff found that at least 94 individuals should have been removed. One person remained on the watch list five years after the underlying terrorism case had been closed. One was encountered at the White House by Secret Service agents before a meeting with President George W. Bush.

At least 35 terrorism suspects who should have been on the list were not included, or their names were submitted after lengthy delays -- in two cases, three years after investigations were opened. Of these, 12 traveled into or out of the country during the period in which they were not on the list.

The inspector general's office reviewed 216 terrorism investigations in Miami, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Eighty-five were closed cases, at which time, according to FBI policy, a subject generally should be removed. However, the FBI was slow to act in 72 percent of cases, taking, on average, two months to remove a name.

One case agent said his subject was supposed to remain on the watch list, but he had forgotten to include a justification for doing so in closing the case. Another agent said she thought the subjects of her two cases had been removed before the cases were assigned to her. A third agent said he must have forgotten to submit the removal form.

FBI Assistant Director John Miller said the agency has addressed all 16 recommendations made by the Office of the Inspector General, including increasing training on watch-listing practices and improving the accuracy of nominations.

"We remain committed to improving our watch list policy and practices to ensure the proper balance between national security protection and the need for accurate, efficient and streamlined watch-listing processes," he said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he found the report "disturbing." "That the FBI continues to fail to place subjects of terrorism investigations on the watchlist is unacceptable," he said in a statement.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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