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Audit faults FBI's role in watch list

The bureau is accused of providing flawed data that entangled innocent people.

March 18, 2008|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Adding to the litany of complaints about one of the nation's primary counter-terrorism safety nets, a Justice Department audit has concluded that the FBI provided the government-wide terrorism watch list with incomplete, inaccurate and outdated information about suspects for almost three years.

As a result, many innocent people stayed on the terrorism watch list long after they were cleared of any wrongdoing, and real threats to national security were sometimes left off the list or not added in a timely manner, according to the audit, released Monday by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.

The watch list was established by presidential directive in September 2003 so that law enforcement and intelligence officials could have a uniform database of terrorism suspects, enabling agencies to screen out those trying to get into the country and flag others domestically.

It is managed by the Terrorist Screening Center, which is overseen by the Justice Department and staffed through the Justice, Homeland Security and State departments and other agencies.

The audit also found problems in the way other law enforcement agencies within the Justice Department contributed to the watch list -- primarily they did not ensure that individuals were removed once cleared of suspicion or wrongdoing. Those agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Cynthia Schnedar, a spokeswoman for Fine, said the inspector general and his staff had no comment, preferring to let the audit speak for itself. The unclassified version of the report did not say how many people were wrongly added to or left off the list, but it did say that the FBI had 3,417 standard watch list nominations in 2005, 2,568 in 2006 and 2,255 from Jan. 1 to Nov. 29, 2007.

Other government entities that submit names to the list, including several intelligence agencies, are conducting their own audits, but most have not made their findings public, Schnedar said.

The Justice Department audit found that the FBI had the proper training and other internal controls in place to help ensure that names were accurately added to, and removed from, the list. But it criticized the bureau for failing to consistently pass along new information so the list could be updated.

FBI field agents also added large numbers of names to the watch list without proper vetting or quality control, and other submissions "were often incomplete or contained inaccuracies, which caused delays in the processing of nominations," the audit concluded.

In addition to making formal submissions to the list, the FBI also prepares terrorist-related intelligence reports that it circulates to other government agencies. Suspects named in those reports were added to the watch list by the National Counterterrorism Center.

"However, because the FBI was not aware of this NCTC practice, the FBI was not monitoring the records to ensure that they were updated or removed when necessary," the audit found.

In some cases, FBI agents waited as long as four months before forwarding the names of terrorism suspects whom they had begun formally investigating, even though bureau policy required that the process be initiated within 10 days of the start of an investigation, the audit said.

Officials from the FBI and the Justice Department said they were working to correct deficiencies and address the audit's recommendations.

Some problems have already been fixed and the rest will be soon, FBI spokesman John Miller said in a statement, noting the need "to ensure the proper balance between national security protection and the need for accurate, efficient and streamlined watch-listing processes."

Privacy advocates said that the audit was further proof that the watch list was unwieldy, inaccurate and badly mismanaged, especially when it came to taking innocent people off the list.

The list has soared to more than 900,000 names by some government estimates, and it has been criticized in the past by Fine's office and other government watchdog agencies.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, described the watch list as "Kafka-esque," saying he was aware of many individuals who could not get off the list no matter how strenuously they complained.

"It is like a lobster trap -- it's very easy to get in, much harder to get out," Rotenberg said. "I'm glad the inspector general has issued the report. But it doesn't solve the problem."

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josh.meyer@latimes.com

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