The FBI takes about 44 days to place on its terrorist watch list suspects referred to it by other agencies and averages about 78 days to remove cleared former suspects from the list, according to an audit of bureau practices.
In addition, the FBI takes up to 17 business days to include its own suspects on the watch list and sometimes misses them entirely if they are not the subjects of ongoing FBI counterterrorism investigations, the audit says.
The delays and occasional oversights result primarily from “redundant and inefficient processes” at FBI headquarters, Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in the audit, which was released Tuesday. Mr. Horowitz recommended a dozen changes for the bureau to improve oversight of the counterterrorism database.
“The report shows that the FBI has given its field offices too much latitude in terms of timeliness to add people to the watch list,” said Marshall Erwin, a research fellow and counterterrorism specialist at the Hoover Institution who has helped lead investigations for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
“There were also a small number of individuals who were not on the list at all that should’ve been. The reason for that is mystifying and a bit troubling,” he said.
In a letter to Mr. Horowitz responding to the audit, Andrew McCabe, acting executive assistant director for the FBI’s national security branch, said the bureau continues “to implement new policies and procedures to strengthen the watchlisting operations and practices.”
The audit uncovered four subjects who were thought to be part of an FBI terrorism-related investigation but who were never placed on the terrorist watch list or the “no fly” list.
In general, the subjects of ongoing FBI counterterrorism cases are on the watch list, but people who are red-flagged by other Justice Department agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, for potentially having terrorist ties or who are under investigation by a foreign country occasionally slip through the cracks, the audit found.
The inspector general said it “identified continued weaknesses in the database used by the FBI to submit, monitor, and track non-investigative subject nominations.”
The audit showed that it took an average of 44 business days — more than two months — for “non-investigative” suspects to be placed on the watch list. It took an average of 78 days to remove cleared former suspects from the list. According to FBI internal policy, the appointment to the watch list should take no more than five days, the inspector general said.
“Despite using three separate systems to track non-investigative subject watchlist nominations, we found the FBI had not maintained the necessary records to readily provide an accurate accounting” of these individuals, the audit said. “We found that processes used by the FBI were redundant and resulted in incomplete, inconsistent and erroneous data.”
However, the audit found that the quality of the terrorist watch list has improved since it came under fire in 2009, after the “underwear bomber” tried to detonate an explosive device onboard an international flight to Detroit. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, was known to U.S. intelligence agencies but was not flagged on the watch list.
A subsequent review found that 15 percent of the subjects in FBI counterterrorism cases were not on the terrorist watch list. No such instances were found in the most recent audit.
The FBI has reorganized the operational unit responsible for processing watch-list nominations, implemented timeliness standards for additions to and removals from the list, and established a team to access its performance against its new measures.
The reforms have increased accuracy of the data recorded, but there is still room for improvement, the inspector general found.
Nonetheless, Mr. Erwin said, “something’s wrong in the process if it’s taking two months to be put on the list.”
A “non-investigative subject” would have been Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of two brothers who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon last year. The brothers became U.S. citizens after being raised in Dagestan, a hotbed of Muslim insurgency in Russia.
The CIA added Tsarnaev’s name to the terrorist watch list after Russian authorities notified the agency that he was becoming radical in his Islamist beliefs during a visit to Dagestan. It was not clear whether the FBI even knew that Tsarnaev was on the list, let alone put there at the request of the CIA.
The FBI closed its inquiry into Tsarnaev after it determined he wasn’t a threat, according to testimony last year by Janet A. Napolitano, who was homeland security secretary at the time.
That gap in information raised concerns among senior lawmakers that the databases created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, such as the terrorist watch list, were not being reviewed and updated on a consistent basis. It also raised concerns that intelligence agencies were using different standards for determining who should be put on the list.
“I’m very concerned that there still seem to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information,” Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, said last year after a closed-door briefing by senior intelligence officials. “That is troubling to me, that this many years after the attacks on our country in 2001, that we still seem to have [practices] that prevent information from being shared effectively.”
The inspector general identified several instances in which, according to FBI policy, it would be fine for the bureau not to place individuals on the list — inconsistent with guidelines set by the federal watch-list community.
The watch-list community includes the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA.
The audit said FBI policy “unduly restricted the FBI’s nominations to the watch list” and may provide “FBI personnel with inconsistent directions that could cause terrorism information to not be available to the Watchlist Community.”
The audit recommends that the FBI use one automated system to submit, monitor and evaluate all individuals nominated to the terrorist watch list, even those not flagged by the FBI. It also recommends that the FBI review the records of non-investigative subjects more than once a year and to look at all closed investigations to make sure people convicted of terrorism-related crimes are not overlooked.
The FBI agreed to all of the recommendations and said it would work to resolve the problems.
“We’d love a perfect system where everyone who is supposed to be on the watch list is,” Mr. Erwin said. “However, the FBI has to sort through hundreds of thousands of nominations. There’s always going to be a natural tension between the accuracy and the timeliness of who gets on the list.”