Nearly eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI’s terrorist watch list is so flawed that at least 10 people who should have been kept out of the United States were allowed to cross its borders, an internal audit released Wednesday shows.
Department of Justice Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that the bureau also was slow to remove names that should not have been on the list, leading to outcries from civil libertarians who have long been critical.
The list also audited more than 65,000 names and concluded that more than one-third were outdated. The whole list includes 1.1 million names, though aliases and variant spellings mean these represent fewer people.
“That the FBI continues to fail to place subjects of terrorism investigations on the watch list is unacceptable,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the FBI.
“Disturbingly, today’s report reveals that in 72 percent of the cases, the FBI has also failed to remove subjects from the list in a timely manner. … Given the very real and negative consequences to which people on the watch list are subjected, this is unacceptable.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a Judiciary member, said the report “just shows more of the same with the FBI. Shoddy and lackadaisical record keeping with the terrorist watch list increases the risk that terrorists can enter the United States freely. It’s a risk we can’t afford.”
The results of the audit came from an analysis of 216 terrorism cases from 2006 to the first half of 2008. The report said that the subjects of terrorism investigations, even those in the earliest stages, generally are put on the list.
The inspector general’s investigation found that the terrorism suspect was never added to the list in 15 percent of the cases analyzed, amounting to the FBI’s failure to add a total of 35 names. At least three people with names matching those of terrorism suspects who should have been on the list subsequently entered the U.S., the inspector general said.
“We believe that the FBI’s failure to consistently nominate subjects of international and domestic terrorism investigations to the terrorist watch list could pose a risk to national security,” the report stated. “The failure to nominate terrorism subjects can also lead to missed opportunities in gathering important intelligence, and it can place front-line law enforcement and screening personnel at increased risk.”
The investigation also concluded that the bureau frequently was slow to add names to the list - in 78 percent of cases, it took more than the bureau’s goal of 20 days. On average, it took 42 days to add a name to the list.
Nine people attempted to cross the border before their names were put on the list, after the 20-day standard. The audit is not comprehensive and does not indicate whether every attempt was successful. It only specifies one as unsuccessful.
It is unknown whether any of any of the people whose names matched those that should have been on the list were terrorism suspects. The report doesn’t say whether any of them ran afoul of the law while in the U.S.
The FBI said Wednesday that it had implemented the inspector general’s 16 recommendations to improve the list.
“These measures have included developing a metrics team to monitor compliance on an ongoing basis, increasing training on watch-listing practices, requiring quarterly supervisory review, improving the accuracy and completeness of nominations, reconfiguring resources to maximize timeliness, and requesting corrections for all nominations inaccurately attributed to the FBI,” Assistant Director John Miller said in a statement. “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.”
The report also gave ammunition to critics who contend the list is useless and intrusive, the ACLU citing in particular that 35 percent of the 68,889 names the audit specifically examined were outdated or no longer associated with terrorism cases.
“It certainly confirms everything we’ve said about the list as being bloated and counterproductive,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office.