The U.S. master terror watch list, used to stop suspected terrorists from entering the country, includes not only suspected al Qaeda members but other suspects from a wide spectrum of organizations around the world, a top federal law enforcement official says.
FBI Assistant Director Michael A. Mason, who heads the bureau’s Washington field office, told The Washington Times on Friday that “the terrorism watch list is just what it says.”
“It’s not [just] the al Qaeda watch list,” Mr. Mason said. “So any terrorist from any organization, al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah … the IRA [Irish Republican Army], anybody could potentially be on it if there was a reason to want to prevent that person from getting on an aircraft.”
His comments came amid questions about the master list and other watch lists including the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) “no-fly list” that were raised last week when it was reported that FBI agents had briefly detained a harmless federal employee who has an Irish last name.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Michael McMahon, a National Institutes of Health employee, was detained for about 45 minutes at Washington Dulles International Airport on New Year’s Eve and said FBI agents asked him if he had ties to the IRA.
The paper suggested the line of questioning meant the TSA no-fly list includes another Michael McMahon, apparently an alias for a man linked to IRA spinoff cells that rejected the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement between Northern Ireland and Britain.
A simple Internet search yesterday turned up more than 20 individuals in Maryland and Virginia with the name Michael McMahon, suggesting the same mistakes could be repeated with others.
Regardless, the incident raises questions in the ongoing debate about the terror watch lists and who is on them, a subject that some say is being kept so secret by federal law-enforcement and intelligence officials that mistakes are inevitable.
“It’s very, very common for individuals who have similar appearing names to be confused with people who are actually on the no-fly list,” said Barry Steinhardt, a New York-based lawyer who heads the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Program.
“The lists are both so shrouded in secrecy and so large that inevitably innocent people are swept up as potential suspects or terrorists especially when you have lists that are maintained by intelligence agencies that have very little oversight,” he said.
The Bush administration has attempted to stem confusion caused by the existence of multiple watch lists by establishing a joint FBI-CIA Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), which consolidates more than a dozen previous lists, including the State Department’s TIPOFF database of more than 110,000 known and suspected terrorists.
TTIC, which went into effect in December, is maintained by a central FBI terrorist screening center and has since come to be referred to as the U.S. master terror watch list. However, questions remain about the actual length of the list and it is not clear whether other, separate lists such as TSA’s no-fly list may contain individuals who are not on the master list and vice-versa.
TSA spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said the “no-fly list is gathered from other federal and law-enforcement agencies for people who have made specific threats to civil aviation or are known terrorists.”
A CIA spokesperson said the watch lists “are constantly updated daily,” and a spokesman at the FBI said authorities “don’t want to give out a number” of how many are on the list because “as we get additional information, we may take people off or we may put people on.”
Mr. Mason said he sympathizes with individuals who may have the same name as a suspect on the master watch list. He also said the FBI is “trying to get very good at scrubbing” the list, or making sure names of individuals not actively suspected of terrorism remain off the list.
An FBI spokesman added officials are trying to enhance the list with such facts as birth dates and other “identifying factors that will permit law-enforcement authorities to ascertain whether the individual in front of them is the person whose name is on the list.”