Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Audit Finds Flaws in FBI Handling of Terrorist Watchlist

May 6, 2009 – 1:02 p.m.
By Tim Starks, CQ Staff

An audit of the government’s terrorist watch list found that the FBI sometimes failed to add investigation targets to the list and frequently failed to add suspects swiftly, then often did not remove suspects when investigations were closed.

The Justice Department’s inspector general released the report Wednesday. While the FBI objected that the audit does not reflect recent changes in watch list management, its results drew criticism from the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“That the FBI continues to fail to place subjects of terrorism investigations on the watch list is unacceptable,” said Patrick J. Leahy , D-Vt., who also criticized the failure to remove cleared suspects. “Given the very real and negative consequences to which people on the watch list are subjected, this is unacceptable.”

In a sample of 216 terrorism probes dating from fiscal 2006 to the first half of fiscal 2008, the inspector general determined that the FBI did not nominate 35 known terrorism suspects to the watch list.

In 78 percent of the cases, the FBI did not meet its own deadlines for nominating suspects to watch lists, with the late nominations averaging 42 days to process. Twelve suspects not added at all or not added swiftly might have traveled to or from the United States during the time they weren’t on the list, the report found.

Out of 85 closed investigations, the FBI did not remove seven subjects from the list after they were no longer the target of an investigation, and it did not remove 61 such names in a timely fashion, according to the report. Leahy complained that one person was on the list for five years after an investigation of the individual had been closed.

The audit also criticized other inaccuracies on the list and poor standards for vetting nominations.

In response to the report, Arthur M. Cummings, executive assistant director for the FBI’s National Security Branch, said the FBI had improved its watch list management since the last inspector general report on the topic in March 2008, implementing new training procedures and assigning watch list coordinators.

The audit, Cummings wrote, does not cover the period since the FBI made those changes.

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