System separates terror suspects, namesakes

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Customs and Border Protection officials say they have introduced a new procedure for travelers who have the same name as a suspected terrorist, to help ensure that innocents are not stopped and questioned every time they enter the country merely because of such coincidences.

The move is a response to criticism of the agency’s procedures, which the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general said resulted in repeated questioning of individuals who were not on the U.S. government’s watch list of known or suspected terrorists, but had the same or similar name as someone who was.

“It’s enlightened self-interest,” said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman Bill Anthony. “It is obviously better for [the individuals concerned], but it is also in our interest.”

CBP screens 1.1 million would-be entrants to the United States every day — citizens, visitors and immigrants. Its job is to filter out would-be illegal migrants, as well as terrorists or other malefactors, while facilitating the swift movement of legitimate travelers.

“If we’re pulling people who are innocent into secondary,” Mr. Anthony explained, referring to the more lengthy immigration interview that those on the watch list — and anyone else who attracts special interest at the borders or ports — go through, “it is a waste of time. We should be looking for bad guys,” not people already ruled out as a threat.

The inspector general’s office had no comment on the changes. Mr. Anthony said the new procedures were not designed to be transparent.

“You’re not told. You’re not supposed to know you are on the watch list,” so agency officials do not inform people of the correction.

He said all kinds of information — like nationality, date of birth or physical characteristics — could be used to distinguish the innocent traveler from the suspected terrorist with the same name.

In most cases, he said, it was “a combination of factors.”

He added that the procedures were “internal” and affected only the agency’s own database, the Treasury Enforcement Communications System, known as TECS. The information would be entered into the system “in such a way that they will not get put into secondary on that basis again.”

He said that the procedures were not designed to replace the redress procedures for individuals wrongly watch-listed or mistakenly identified as a watch-listed person. “People still have the right to complain,” Mr. Anthony said.

And he acknowledged that the corrections will not appear on the U.S. government’s centralized terrorist watch list, formally known as the Terrorism Screening Database. That list is maintained by the FBI-led interagency Terrorism Screening Center.

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