U.S. terror watch list security ‘encounters’ escalate
The number of “encounters” between law enforcement or other government officials and people on the U.S. watch list of known and suspected terrorists has grown steadily and stands at an average of more than 50 a day.
“We are averaging 50-plus positive encounters per day,” said Leonard Boyle, director of the FBI-led multiagency Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the watch list. Mr. Boyle was referring to occasions when a person coming into contact with officials is positively identified as a person on the watch list.
He said the majority of those contacts — which the center calls “encounters” — are either at U.S. borders as people attempt to enter or outside the country altogether, such as when they are boarding planes headed for the United States. He declined to give more specific figures.
Encounters inside the country vary but typically are traffic stops or other routine interactions with local police, or they come about when travelers find themselves on the “no-fly” or “selectee” lists — subsets of the terrorist watch list administered by the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration.
In many instances, “nothing is going to happen to the person” as a result of an encounter inside the country, Mr. Boyle said. “In fact, the person may not even know that he is on the watch list or that anyone is paying him special attention as a result of the encounter.”
The consolidated watch list of what the government calls “known or appropriately suspected terrorists” was established at the recommendation of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9/11 Commission. Several of the 19 hijackers who attacked the United States had been identified by the CIA as possible al Qaeda operatives, but there had been no coordinated effort to keep them — or other suspected terrorists — out of the country.
The master list maintained by the center, known as the Terrorist Screening Database or TSDB, has burgeoned to almost 1 million names since it was established, but officials say multiple records are needed sometimes because suspected terrorists use false or alternate identities, and the million records in the system represent about 400,000 individuals. Terrorist Screening Center officials recently said during a congressional hearing that just 3 percent, or 12,000, of those were U.S. citizens or legal residents.
In 2006, according to figures given then by Mr. Boyle´s predecessor, the center was logging an average of 35 positive encounters a day, roughly seven of them inside the country, so the new figures represent a rise of about a third in the overall numbers.
“In my tenure [since March last year], that number [of encounters] has crept up gradually,” Mr. Boyle said, adding, “Some of those are repeat occurrences — there are people who are watch-listed who have been encountered a number of times.”
Critics of the watch list say the system has become bloated with “junk” information and that the growing number of names is depriving those listed of due process and inconveniencing anyone with the same or similar names.
“The more names that are put on the list, the more stops you are going to have and the more people´s lives are going to be disrupted without any benefit to security,” said Mike German, a former FBI counterterrorism agent who works with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mr. German said the number of encounters shows the weakness of the watch-list system, and he questioned why the authorities aren’t doing more to investigate and then clear or indict people whose names are on the list.
“We know that there are not 50 arrests of terrorists every day,” he said. “Why are these names on the list? [. . . ] If there aren’t arrests and prosecutions, what´s the point? [. . . ] Is this just innocent people being deprived of their right to due process and to travel?”
Mr. Boyle declined to say how many arrests or indictments came about as a result of encounters but said that was not the best way to measure the success of the system, which is intended to enable agencies to share intelligence and “connect the dots on terrorist associa- tions and activities.”
As an example of that kind of success, he cited a traffic stop last year during which “a police officer in a major metropolitan area used the watch list to identify three subjects of separate FBI terrorism investigations in the same car. Their association had previously been unknown,” Mr. Boyle said.
Joanne Ferreira, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said anyone involved in terrorism would be inadmissible to the United States under federal law. She said the agency turned away an average of more than 840 people seeking admission to the country every day but did not provide a breakdown of the reasons.
Mr. German said there was no effective way for anyone to challenge his or her inclusion on the list, adding that it “unquestionably impacts innocent people.”
“That’s students wanting to come to the U.S. to study, professors coming here to teach, all sorts of people looking to come — as most of our ancestors did — to a country where they can better themselves,” Mr. German said.