WASHINGTON - A year after a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner, officials say they have made it easier to add individuals' names to a terrorist watch list and improved the government's ability to thwart an attack in the United States.
The failure to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the watch list last year renewed concerns that the government’s system to screen out potential terrorists was flawed. Even though Abdulmutallab’s father had told U.S. officials of his son’s radicalization in Yemen, government rules dictated that a single-source tip was insufficient to include a person’s name on the watch list.
Since then, senior counterterrorism officials say they have relaxed their criteria so that a single-source tip, as long as it is deemed credible, can lead to a name being placed on the watch list. The government’s master watch list is one of roughly a dozen lists, or databases, used by counterterrorism officials. Officials have periodically adjusted the criteria used to maintain it.
But civil liberties groups argue that the government’s new criteria, which went into effect over the summer, have made it even more likely that individuals who pose no threat will be swept up in the nation’s security apparatus, leading to potential violations of their privacy and making it difficult for them to travel.
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“They are secret lists with no way for people to petition to get off or even to know if they’re on,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Officials insist they have been vigilant about keeping law-abiding people off the master list. The new criteria have led to only modest growth in the list, which stands at 440,000 people, about 5 percent larger than last year. The vast majority are non-U.S. citizens.
“Despite the challenges we face, we have made significant improvements,” Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in a speech this month.
The master watch list is used to screen people seeking to obtain a visa, cross a U.S. border, or board an airliner in or destined for the United States.
The standard for inclusion on it remains the same as it was before - that a person is “reasonably suspected” to be engaged in terrorism-related activity. But another senior counterterrorism official, who like some others would speak only on the condition of anonymity, said that officials have now “effectively in a broad stroke lowered the bar for inclusion.”
Timothy Healy, director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the master list, said the new guidelines balance the protection of Americans from terrorist threats with the preservation of civil liberties. He said the watch list today is “more accurate, more agile,” providing valuable intelligence to a growing number of partners that include state and local police and foreign governments.
Each day there are 50 to 75 instances in which a law enforcement official or government agent stops someone who a check confirms is on the watch list, a senior official at the Terrorist Screening Center said. Such “positive encounters” can take place at airports, land borders or consular offices, or during traffic stops.
The official recounted an incident two years ago in which a state trooper pulled over a truck driver for a traffic violation. The driver appeared nervous, was traveling to several states, had three cell phones and plenty of food in his truck, and made several calls during the stop. The trooper was able to confirm through a call to the Terrorist Screening Center that the man was on the watch list. It turned out, the official said, that an FBI case agent had an open al-Qaida-related investigation on the truck driver.
The names on the watch list are culled from a much larger catch-all database that is housed at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., and that includes a huge variety of terrorism-related intelligence.
From its inception in 2005, the database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, was plagued by technical difficulties. In 2008, the counterterrorism center undertook a multimillion-dollar upgrade to streamline and more fully automate the database so that only one record exists per person, no matter how many aliases that person might have.
Those improvements should reduce errors and free up analysts for more pressing tasks, said Vicki Jo McBee, the counterterrorism center’s chief information officer.
The system will also ease the sharing of fingerprints and iris and facial images of people on the watch list among screening agencies, McBee said. And rather than sending data once a night to the Terrorist Screening Center’s watch list, which can take hours, the new system should be able to update the list almost instantly as names are entered, McBee said.
Deployment has not been smooth. TIDE 2, as it is called, failed readiness tests and missed a December launch deadline. But now, McBee said, all tests have been passed and the system will be launched in January.
Meanwhile, the National Counterterrorism Center has developed a 70-person pursuit group to investigate “sleeper” terrorism threats, with four teams examining the regional hotbeds in Africa; in Yemen and the Arabian Gulf; in Pakistan and Europe; and in the United States.
A fifth picks up the rest of the world.
The teams, which include analysts from the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, might take a tip about a suspect flying to the United States on a certain route, then study travel records to see whether they can find travelers who match the pattern.
They also mine Internet sites for clues, in “a careful, legal way,” the official said.