NEWS

Congress Probes the Terrorist Watch List

By Matthew Harwood

Earlier today, Congress delved into the "progress" and the "pitfalls" of the government's terrorist watch list.

The hearing came after government and media reports that the list had ballooned to include approximately 755,000 records as of May 2007, tracing back to approximately 300,000 individuals (who can show up more than once).

"We have heard the stories about all the false 'hits' against the list," said Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, "including my own good friend Congressman John Lewis as well as the young children of some of my own staff."

Thompson said if the list continues to expand, the government would have to resolve the issues that cause false hits and, conversely, allow people on the list to enter the country undetected.

The terrorist watch list and its maintenance is the responsibility of the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), formed by a presidential directive in September 2003. The TSC is a multi-agency effort led by the FBI. The consolidated terrorist watch list the TSC maintains is the "U.S. government's master repository for all records of known or appropriately suspected international and domestic terrorists used for watch list-related screening," said Eileen R. Larence, director of  Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The watchlist is used by "frontline" screening agents—border patrol officers, visa application reviewers, or local police officers—to identify individuals suspected of, or known to have, links to terrorism, both international and domestic.

In its nearly four years of existence, the watch list has positively matched individuals to the watch list 53,000 times. Positive identification leads to mainly three results: arrest, denial of entry, or questioning and then release.

According to the GAO and the Department of Justice's Inspector General, the terrorist watch list suffers from a few weaknesses that could potentially harm national security, despite the programs many strides since its hasty creation in 2003.

Both watchdogs found that not all watchlist records were made available to the appropriate screening databases.

"For example," said Glenn A. Fine, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice, "a known or suspected terrorist could be erroneously issued a U.S. visa or unknowningly allowed to enter the United States through a port-of-entry," if screeners did not have the appropriate watch list records.

Larence noted that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has repeatedly allowed individuals to enter the United States who then later turned up on the terrorism watch list. Moreover, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has allowed persons to board planes who were identified as a terrorist risk mid-flight. TSA had to divert and ground the flights.

While Fine lauded the TSC for creating a redress system for those mistakenly placed on the terrorist watchlist, he said the TSC must do more to improve the efficiency of the system.  Currently, it takes an average of 67 days to finish a redress complaint, which he said keeps the list bloated for too long.

Both the GAO and the Department of Justice's Inspector General made recommendations to the TSC, which it generally agreed to implement. One recommendation is establishment of guidelines for sharing the terrorist watchlist with appropriate private sector entities responsible for protecting critical infrastructure.

"Private sector screening," said Leonard Boyle, director of the Terrorist Screening Center, is "critical to ensuring we identify watchlisted persons working as, or who have access to, critical infrastructure facilities that could be used to harm the American public."

 UPDATE: According to the Associated Press, there are 880,000 records in the terrorist watch list database currently.

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