House Panel Weighs Terrorist Watch-List Problems
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The government's terrorist watch list now includes more then 860,000 names. Congressional investigators say despite some recent improvements, there are still serious problems with the list. These include people on the list who are mistakenly cleared to fly across the border, and others who are not on the list being mistaken for someone who is.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: John Graham(ph) is one of thousands of Americans who found themselves in this predicament. He went to the Seattle airport one day and discovered he couldn't check in at the airline kiosk. After a lengthy check, a ticket agent informed Graham that he was subject to additional security.
Mr. JOHN GRAHAM: Because I've been put on a list of people who were or were suspected of being threat to national security and/or civil aviation - and I'm quoting directly. So that, of course, you know, upset me.
FESSLER: Because the former Foreign Service officer considers himself to be a patriotic American. But after more than two years, Graham has been unable to find out why his name is on the list, whether he's been mistaken for someone else, or how he gets off the list.
Eileen Larence of the Government Accountability Office told the House committee today that people have been misidentified as someone on the nation's terrorist watch list at least 50,000 times.
Ms. EILEEN LARENCE (Director, Government Accountability Office): Usually, because their name was a close match to someone actually on the list, or because computers cannot match names exactly.
FESSLER: Larence said there are other problems with the list, which isn't just used at airports, but also at boarders, for visa applications and by local law enforcement.
Ms. LARENCE: Agencies also know that individuals on the list have passed undetected through their screening processes. For example, people on the no-fly list who are supposed to be denied boarding have boarded aircraft, and people in the watch list have crossed the border without being detected.
FESSLER: Her agency, as well as the Justice Department's inspector general, have found incomplete and inaccurate entries on the list. Kathleen Kraninger, who directs the Screening Coordination Office at the Department of Homeland Security, defended the list, saying that its lead to the arrest of known terrorists. But she added that she, too, is troubled by errors.
Ms. KATHLEEN KRANINGER (Director, Screening and Coordination Office): And for a number of reasons - including the annoyance it causes the traveling public, but most importantly, because it is a waste of our resources. The time that we spend looking at someone who is not the right person is time spent not looking in the right place.
FESSLER: So her agency and the FBI's Terror Screening Center, which manages the list, say they're taking steps to clean it up. The Homeland Security Department has also begun a new redress program for travelers who encounter problems similar to John Grahams.
So far this year, about 16,000 people have filed complaints, and Kraninger says almost half had been resolved. In almost every instance, the individual has been put on a so-called cleared list. But lawmakers noted that that list isn't always shared with other agencies. New York Democrat Nita Lowey also complained that few agencies use the entire watch list to do their screening.
Representative NITA LOWEY (Democrat, New York): There's no excuses, as far as I'm concerned, for any agency not to review the combined list.
FESSLER: But administration officials said aviation would grind to a halt if airline screened against all 860,000 names. Instead, they look at about 35,000. For his part, John Graham of Seattle is resigned to his status. He says past efforts to clear his name have been fruitless. He was surprised, though, when he returned from a trip to Canada this summer and wasn't stopped at the border.
Mr. GRAHAM: They didn't do anything. They didn't even butt clock or say, oh, there's an asterisk there - nothing. They just said, you know, anything to declare, weight me on, whatever.
FESSLER: Which makes him even more confused why he still stopped at the airport.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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