U.S. intelligence officials have acknowledged the government knowingly allows foreigners whose names are on terrorist watch lists to enter the country in order to track their movement and activities.
In an unusual and startling admission, Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, disclosed the practice during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.
"I will tell you, that when people come to the country and they are on the watch list, it is because we have generally made the choice that we want them here in the country for some reason or another," Leiter said.
On Thursday, a U.S. intelligence official confirmed that people who are on three of four federal terrorist watch lists are sometimes allowed into the country.
"In certain situations it's to our advantage to be able to track individuals who might be on a terrorist watch list because you can learn something from their activities and their contacts," the official said.
The three watch lists include the TIDE database, which has about 550,000 names; the FBI's terrorist watch list, which has about 400,000 names; and another list of about 14,000 people who are flagged for secondary screening at the nation's airports.
"This would not include individuals who are on the no-fly list," the official added.
It was not clear how many people on watch lists have been allowed into the country. But the revelation could prompt a blowback in Congress, where lawmakers have been pressing to expand watch lists.
"I'm strongly opposed to letting anyone that's on the watch list into the country, period," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement released late Thursday.
In Wednesday's hearing, Leiter said he did not know exactly how many people named on the watch lists have been permitted to enter the country.
On a related matter, Feinstein and Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Kit Bond, R-Mo., said after a closed hearing with senior administration officials Thursday that they are considering pressing for legislation that would allow national security officials to revoke a foreigner's visa. Only the State Department has that authority now.
Feinstein raised the issue in light of disclosures that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspected terrorist charged in the failed attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas, had a valid visa to enter the United States, even though he was listed in the TIDE database.
"In my view, there was enough to put this man on the no-fly list," Feinstein told reporters after the closed hearing. "In my view, his visa should have been revoked. There was enough."
"I think both of us agree that there needs to be a national security voice in visa revocation, not just the State Department," she added. "Visas should really be under the auspices of the [National] Counterterrorism Center in the sense that they have the ability to revoke visas when they see a national security threat."
Feinstein and Bond said their committee was not aware that the Obama administration has not yet created a special unit to interrogate high-value terrorism suspects.
During the hearing, her committee received testimony from Leiter, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads the National Security Agency, and Stephen Kappes, CIA deputy director.