Terrorist watch list problems continue to rankle lawmakers

A consolidated terrorist watch list has helped the government identify potential threats, but lawmakers and government auditors say it is still a work in progress. Four years after its inception, the watch list database still contains numerous errors, is not fully consolidated and is not supported by a clear strategy for screening people.

New audit reports underscore the need to make the terrorist watch list more accurate and timely, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which is responsible for the watch list, continues to lack a comprehensive protocol for quality assurance procedures, the Justice Department’s inspector general wrote. Some data contained in the watch list is incomplete or not accurate.

“These weaknesses can have enormous consequences,” said Glenn Fine, Justice inspector general, in written testimony submitted at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Oct. 24. Inaccurate, incomplete or obsolete watch list information increases the risk of not identifying suspected terrorists and of detaining innocent people, Fine said.

Fine also raised concerns about TSC maintaining two nonidentical but interconnected versions of the watch list database. He said law enforcement agencies’ databases are not receiving all national list information. TSC lacks an automated system for reducing misidentifications, which would flag records that are repeatedly shown to be unsubstantiated, Fine said.

TSC uses one version of the database to ingest data from agencies and another to export it to clients. TSC said it is addressing the auditors’ concerns. It reconciles the two databases daily and expects to have the two components fully integrated by early 2008, said Leonard Boyle, TSC director.

An independent report from the Government Accountability Office states that individual agency databases do not contain all records in TSC’s consolidated watch list. Those databases are focused instead on threats most relevant to the agency’s mission, an approach that poses a potential vulnerability.

GAO identified several instances when individuals on the consolidated watch list passed screening at U.S. borders and airports.

“This situation exists partly because the government lacks an up-to-date strategy and implementation plan for optimizing use of the terrorist watch list,” said Eileen Larence, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, in written testimony.

GAO recommended that the White House step up its involvement and that DHS and other federal agencies submit to the president an updated strategy for a coordinated and comprehensive approach to terrorist-related screening, an updated investment and implementation plan, and guidelines for watch list use by the private sector relevant to homeland security.

Lawmakers also expressed concern over the process by which people who believe they are on the watch list can voice their concerns. Fine said it takes on average 67 days to complete the redress process.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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