The terrorist watch list, compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies, is used by the U.S. government to bar individuals who pose a threat to national security from entering the country through land border crossings, airports and seaports.
But in a new report, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, has found problems with the list. The report was presented at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine told the panel that his office reviewed 105 records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which oversees the watch list, and found that 38 percent of them had errors or inconsistencies.
"We believe it is critical that the TSC further improve the quality of its data and its redress procedures. Inaccurate, incomplete and obsolete watch list information can increase the risk of not identifying known or suspected terrorists, and it can also increase the risk that innocent persons will be repeatedly stopped or detained."
In fact, Eileen Larence, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, says individuals on the watch list have passed undetected through airport screening.
"Individuals on the no-fly list have boarded aircraft, and sometimes flights had to be diverted. Agencies know this, because for international flights into the United States, Customs and Border Protection screens all passengers a second time, after the airlines, to determine if the passengers can enter the country. To do the screening, CBP needs passenger data, but currently it is not sent to CBP in time to screen before the flight departs."
Larence says new government rules, to be put into effect in the near future, will require that the agency receive passenger information sooner, and thus could help identify terrorist suspects before they board aircraft. U.S. officials defended the watch list program. They say they are working to better identify suspected terrorists before they enter the United States. Homeland Security Assistant Secretary of Policy, Paul Rosenzweig:
"We have made great strides. More work needs to be done, but the improvement is quite noticeable."
The chairman of the Senate committee, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, expressed concern about the growth of the terrorist watch list, which the GAO report says has grown from 158-thousand in June 2004 to 860-thousand today.
"With the list likely to go over one million names in the near future, we need to know that there are clear standards for placing names on it and of course taking them off it."
But Leonard Boyle, director of the Terrorist Screening Center, says the list is actually much smaller than described by the GAO because some people may be on the list more than once if their names are listed under multiple spellings.
"The actual number of human beings reflected in the data base is far fewer than 800-thousand. I cannot give you an exact number because, in fact, we do not know for sure, some people successfully create an entire separate identity. Even if we look at the data base we might see what appear to be two completely separate identities that reflect but one person. So the number is far fewer."
Boyle says federal agencies have agreed to a set of procedures to allow people who believe they were wrongly added to the watch list a timely, fair and accurate review of their cases.