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Report: FBI slow to update terror watchlist

The FBI has been slow to update the national terror suspect watchlist — and the lapses pose real risks to U.S. security, a Justice Department audit has found.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The FBI has been slow to update the national terror suspect watchlist — and the lapses pose real risks to U.S. security, a Justice Department audit has found.

A report by the Justice Department's Inspector General, Glenn Fine, found that 12 terror suspects who were either not watchlisted or were slow to be added to the list may have traveled into or out of the United States during the period when they were not placed on the list.

Auditors also found significant delays in taking people off the list once they were no longer considered suspects.

The watchlist, which is used to screen people entering the U.S. and by local law enforcement, contains more than 1.1 million names.

In 15 percent of the cases auditors reviewed, subjects were not nominated to the watchlist, contrary to FBI policy.

Attempts to cross border
In some instances, people with names matching subjects who were not watchlisted — or who were not put on the list in a timely fashion — attempted to cross U.S. borders during the period their names were not placed on the list, according to the report.

"The failure to place appropriate individuals on the watchlist, or the failure to place them on the watchlist in a timely manner, increases the risk that these individuals are able to enter and move freely about the country," the report concluded.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the issues have been addressed and her agency is publicly committed to working with the Justice Department "as a shared mission of protecting this country is paramount," said Sara Kuban, a spokeswoman for Napolitano.

In two of every three cases the auditors examined, the FBI failed to update information in the watchlist, as required.

FBI Assistant Director John Miller said the bureau has already taken steps to improve the system.

"The FBI has implemented measures to address all 16 recommendations identified by the (inspector general), which are all now resolved," Miller said in a statement.

As slow as names were added to the watchlist, they were also slow to be removed.

In 8 percent of cases, the FBI failed to remove subjects from the watchlist as required, according to the report.

And in almost three out of four cases reviewed, the FBI failed to remove a name from the watchlist in a timely fashion, the auditors found.

Slow to clear innocents
That rankles privacy advocates who long have complained that the system is slow to clear innocent people, who face delays when traveling and other difficulties.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said one person had remained on the list five years after the person's case had been closed.

"Given the very real and negative consequences to which people on the watchlist are subjected, this is unacceptable," Leahy said in a statement.

Overall, auditors found the entire process was still too slow.

"We found that the FBI failed to nominate many subjects in the terrorism investigations that we sampled, did not nominate many others in a timely fashion, and did not update or remove watchlist records as required," the report found.

The terror watchlist was created in 2004 to combine information from many different government agencies. The FBI is charged with managing the list.

The audit follows a 2008 report by the inspector general that found the FBI gave outdated, incomplete and inaccurate information about terror suspects to be added to the watchlist for nearly three years, despite steps taken to prevent errors.