The FBI Has Built a Better Terrorist Watchlist

Justice IG Michael Horowitz released the report. Justice IG Michael Horowitz released the report. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

The FBI has made considerable progress in improving the accuracy and timeliness of the post-9/11 terrorist watchlist, the Justice Department inspector general reported on Tuesday.

But the bureau-administered Terrorist Screening Center could do more to document investigations during national security incidents as well as better facilitate the sharing of information on terrorist suspects among agencies, the report concluded.

“During our previous audits… we found that the FBI failed to nominate to the watchlist certain subjects of terrorism investigations and was not timely in processing nominations to the watchlist,” said the fifth such report from Justice IG Michael Horowitz. “In response to our reports, the FBI revised its watchlist policy, reorganized the operational unit responsible for processing watchlist nominations, implemented new automated processes and timeliness standards for the submission and processing of watchlist actions, and established a team to assess the FBI’s performance against the new criteria.  Generally, we found that these improvements have helped to ensure that the watchlist is more complete, accurate and current.” 

The IG’s review of watchlist progress covered the period from 2009 to 2012. It was triggered by an incident in December 2009 in which a Nigerian national who became known as “the underwear bomber” tried to bring down a passenger plane en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. Before that event, the IG report said, the FBI regularly failed to act in a timely manner to nominate certain terrorist subjects under investigation to appear on the list. Communications shortfalls in the bureau’s efforts to modify procedures left the Terrorist Screening Center “unable to readily identify individuals who met the threat‑based criteria, or to easily generate a listing of all of the watchlist records that were modified,” auditors found. “As a result, the TSC relied on largely manual processes to track the watchlist modifications and related in‑depth reviews.”

But recent reviews have shown that new “policies and procedures should help to ensure that future threat‑based watchlist modifications are handled more effectively and efficiently,” the IG concluded. The report noted, however, that the FBI’s guidelines on the time it should take to open a case and nominate an appropriate suspect to the watchlist could be accelerated from the current typical time frame of 17 business days.

The IG made a dozen recommendations, including requiring the screening center to “better document its actions during national security events, clarifying FBI information sharing policies to ensure they are consistent with those of the watchlist community, and improving the efficiency of the FBI’s watchlist nomination process for investigative and non-investigative subjects.” 

The FBI agreed with all the recommendations and reported that corrective action has begun.

The agencies contributing to the terrorist watchlist include the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and the departments of Justice, Defense, State, Treasury, Homeland Security and Energy.

Said Horowitz in a statement, “The timely handling of watchlist nominations is a matter of fundamental importance to our national security.” 

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