By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009; A08
Newly released FBI data offer evidence of the broad scope and complexity of the nation's terrorist watch list, documenting a daily flood of names nominated for inclusion to the controversial list.
During a 12-month period ended in March this year, for example, the U.S. intelligence community suggested on a daily basis that 1,600 people qualified for the list because they presented a "reasonable suspicion," according to data provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee by the FBI in September and made public last week.
FBI officials cautioned that each nomination "does not necessarily represent a new individual, but may instead involve an alias or name variant for a previously watchlisted person."
The ever-churning list is said to contain more than 400,000 unique names and over 1 million entries. The committee was told that over that same period, officials asked each day that 600 names be removed and 4,800 records be modified. Fewer than 5 percent of the people on the list are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Nine percent of those on the terrorism list, the FBI said, are also on the government's "no fly" list.
This information, and more about the FBI's wide-ranging effort against terrorists, came in answers from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to Senate Judiciary Committee members' questions. The answers were first made public last week in Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News.
Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who has shown concern over some of the FBI's relatively new investigative techniques assessing possible terrorist, criminal or foreign intelligence activities, drew new information from the agency. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI needed initial information that a person or group was engaged in wrongdoing before it could open a preliminary investigation.
Under current practice, no such information is needed. That led Feingold to ask how many "assessments" had been initiated and how many had led to investigations since new guidelines were put into effect in December 2008. The FBI said the answer was "sensitive" and would be provided only in classified form.
Feingold was given brief descriptions of the types of assessments that can be undertaken: The inquiries can be opened by individual agents "proactively," meaning on his or her own or in response to a lead about a threat. Other assessments are undertaken to identify or gather information about potential targets or terrorists, to gather information to aid intelligence gathering and related to matters of foreign intelligence interest.
Feingold pointed to a November 2008 Justice Department inspector general audit showing that in 2006, approximately 219,000 tips from the public led to the FBI's determination that there were 2,800 counterterrorism threats and suspicious incidents that year. "Regardless of the reporting source, FBI policy requires that each threat or suspicious incident should receive some level of review and assessment to determine the potential nexus to terrorism," the audit said.
In a different vein, the FBI was asked why it is losing new recruits as special agents and support personnel at a time when terrorist investigations are increasing. The FBI responded that failed polygraph tests rather than other factors, such as the length of time for getting security clearances, are the main reason recruits are ending their efforts to join the bureau. In the past year, polygraphs were the cause of roughly 40 percent of special-agent applicants dropping out, the records showed.