Leahy, who is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a comment on the audit that said, “[T]he FBI’s terrorist watchlist is often either inaccurate or incomplete. That the FBI continues to fail to place subjects of terrorism investigations on the watchlist is unacceptable. Disturbingly, today’s report reveals that in 72 percent of the cases, the FBI also failed to remove subjects from the list in a timely manner.” Overall the audit revealed a 35 percent error rate and significant deficiencies in the process of adding or erasing records. It concludes with “16 recommendations to help the FBI improve its nominations to and removals from the consolidated terrorist watchlist.”
Created in 2003, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center is charged with compiling federal, state and local law enforcement agencies’ lists of potential terrorists. According to the audit, the watch list (as of December 2008) contained over 1.1 million names, with some people listed multiple times under different spellings. On Sept. 9, 2008, the screening center estimated there were only 400,000 individuals on the list.
The audit revealed a process so disorganized that “the actual number of individuals the FBI nominated to the terrorist watchlist since its inception is unknown.” The audit found that:
- Inaccuracies were rampant
- Entries were incomplete
- Watch list records are not consistently updated or purged
- Many entries contained information “unrelated to terrorism”
The ACLU issued a press release that said, “The audit confirms that the nation’s watchlist system is massively broken”, and called for Congressional oversight.
According to the report, “many former subjects of FBI counterterrorism investigations were removed from the watchlist in an untimely manner. It took an average of 60 days to remove these former subjects from the watchlist.” The audit determined that in eight percent of closed cases, “the FBI failed to remove subjects from the watchlist as required by FBI policy” and that “in 72 percent of the closed cases reviewed, the FBI failed to remove the subject in a timely manner.”
The OIG’s audit examined 68,669 of those identities and found 24,000 were out of date, including one name that remained on the list for five years after his case was resolved and two persons who are dead. The report also identified more than 50,000 records with no explanation of why they were on the list, making it impossible to remove them. The ACLU legislative director Caroline Fredrickson said the report “strongly suggests that hundreds of thousands of people are being wrongly identified as terrorists.”
The audit also highlighted the lengthy period for the FBI to add or modify a terrorist suspect’s information. Reviewing 216 FBI terror investigations, the audit found that the FBI failed to put the names of 35 terrorism suspects on the list. Overall, 78 percent of preliminary watchlist investigations were not processed within the customary timeframe. This postponement led to at least twelve terrorism suspects who may have traveled into or out of the U.S. during the time they were not included on the list, according to the audit. Others were added too slowly to meet the FBI’s own standards, an issue that “can have significant consequences for public safety,” Inspector General Glenn Fine said in the report.
The 16 recommendations offered in the audit focus on improving the process by which names are added or removed from the watchlist, including:
- Determine an accurate amount of time for the watchlist nomination process
- Implement periodic refresher training on significant changes that occur in the nomination process and on the overall benefits of watchlists
- Develop a policy to review justifications for retaining or modifying watchlist names from closed investigations.
- Monitor the timeliness of watchlist removal requests to help ensure that the records are deleted in a timely manner.