Reading Time: 2 minutes

Terrorist watch lists, launched by government agencies following the 9/11 attacks to help track terrorism suspects, have been plagued by miscommunication, inaccuracy, and inefficiency. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which maintains a master list through its Terrorist Screening Center, has not always removed records from the watch list when it should have, a Department of Justice investigation found in 2008. FBI field offices have often submitted incomplete or inaccurate information to headquarters, or bypassed headquarters entirely and submitted nominations directly to the screening center, which has resulted in incomplete, less-than-thorough records.

Several agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration, were supposed to share terror-related information with the FBI, but that didn’t always happen, which meant some potential terrorists never made the list. Other agencies forwarded names to the list that FBI officials thought were only nominations, so some of those names were neither maintained nor removed when necessary. And bureaucratic delays often meant suspect names weren’t added to the list for up to four months. By April 2007, the list contained more than 724,000 entries, including many common names; partly as a result, legitimate passengers have been tagged as potential terrorists, including a five-year-old Californian named James Robinson, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Carl Kropf, spokesman for the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, said the most visible problems arise from airline passengers who share the same or similar names with individuals included on the terrorist watch list. He said that trouble should be remedied in 2009 when the government takes over the screening process from the airlines.

Californian James Robinson is now 8 and still has trouble flying, his father told a House committee in September 2008. The master list now contains more than 1 million records, and lists 400,000 individuals, only three percent of whom are U.S. citizens, Homeland Security official Rick Kopel told the same committee. The Transportation Security Administration’s system of matching passengers against the terrorist watch list is getting an overhaul, and streamlining is expected in early 2009. Meanwhile, a Congressional investigation found that a secret half-billion dollar program meant to overhaul the FBI’s master list database is on the verge of collapse, riddled with design, management, and contractor flubs.

Your support is crucial!

Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.