Audit: FBI Needs to Speed Up Watch List Nominations

Image: Audit: FBI Needs to Speed Up Watch List Nominations

Wednesday, 26 Mar 2014 08:08 AM

By Melissa Clyne

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The FBI takes too long to place suspected terrorists on its watch lists, remove cleared former suspects, and sometimes fails to add its own suspects, a Justice Department inspector general found during a recent audit, according to The Washington Times.

Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz has recommended the agency make a dozen changes to address "redundant and inefficient processes" that cog the system, which currently averages 44 business days to add suspected terror suspects referred by other agencies and 17 days to include its own suspects on the list.

If a suspected terrorist is not the subject of an ongoing FBI counterterrorism investigation, sometimes the FBI fails to add them at all. The agency also averages 78 days to remove cleared former suspects, according to the audit of bureau practices released this week.

FBI policy dictates that watch list appointments take no more than five days, according to the inspector general.

"There were also a small number of individuals who were not on the list at all that should’ve been," Marshall Erwin, a research fellow and counterterrorism specialist at the Hoover Institution, told the Times. "The reason for that is mystifying and a bit troubling."

The FBI neglected to include four people involved in a "terrorism-related investigation" on either a terrorist watch list or the "no fly" list, the Times reports. Occasionally, subjects who are red-flagged by other agencies for suspected terrorist ties or who are being investigated by a foreign country "slip through the cracks."

Overall, however, the system has greatly improved since Christmas Day 2009 when Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, known publicly as "the underwear bomber," boarded a flight in Amsterdam bound for Detroit and tried unsuccessfully to detonate an explosive. Though Abdulmutallab was known to the U.S. government, according to Horowitz’s report, he was not included on a consolidated terrorist watch list.

In May 2009, 15 percent of subjects in FBI terrorism cases reviewed were not on the terrorist watch list. In the current audit, no such instances were found.

The FBI has agreed with all the recommendations and will continue to implement new policies and procedures to strengthen watch list operations and systems, according to a memo from Andrew McCabe, acting executive assistant director for the bureau's national security branch.

The 12 recommended changes by Horowitz include better documentation during national security events, clarifying FBI information-sharing policies, and improving efficiency for the FBI’s watch list nomination process for both investigative and non-investigative subjects.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of two brothers who set off bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, was a non-investigative subject, according to the Times.

On information from Russian authorities, the CIA added him to the terrorist watch list but it was not clear whether the FBI knew he was on the list. The Russians had notified U.S. officials that Tsarnaev was becoming increasingly radical in his Islamist beliefs during a visit to Dagestan.

The FBI determined Tsarnaev wasn’t a threat and closed its inquiry into him, according to former Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano.

Last year, the Times reported that there were 875,000 suspected terrorists in a "secret U.S. database." The figure surged from 540,000 five years earlier, in part because of changes following the foiled underwear bomb plot in 2009.

"We’d love a perfect system where everyone who is supposed to be on the watch list is," Erwin said. "However, the FBI has to sort through hundreds of thousands of nominations. There’s always going to be a natural tension between the accuracy and the timeliness of who gets on the list."

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