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Audit: FBI has had problems with terror watch list

Passengers are seen in Ben Gurion airport near

Passengers are seen in Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 5, 2010. Photo Credit: AP

Government auditors have found that since 2008, the FBI has had problems handling the nation's special terrorist watch list - sometimes taking too long to place subjects on the list, or to remove them once they were no longer of investigative interest.

The findings appear to contradict President Barack Obama's assertion Tuesday, during his speech about the Christmas Day bombing attempt, that the watch list wasn't broken.

The watch list delays have prompted concerns in law enforcement that national security could be compromised, and among civil libertarians that innocent people are being subjected to unnecessary scrutiny when they travel.

Known as the "terrorist screening database," the FBI-maintained watch list is the key compilation of names of people under investigation for terrorist links, as well as those who are persons of interest. The list reportedly is provided to homeland security officials for routine screening of all passengers and crew flying into the United States.

Estimates of how many names are on the list vary. A report last year by the Department of Justice noted that the FBI since 2004 has processed between about 68,000 to 130,000 suspected terrorist identities; an estimated 400,000 were on the list by late 2008.

Last May, a report by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Justice said a sample of terror cases showed that some subjects weren't "nominated" - proposed for inclusion on the list - in a "timely fashion." Specifically, 35 subjects in 216 cases "weren't nominated to the consolidated terrorist watch list, contrary to FBI policy."

Auditors also said that a review of 68,669 known or suspected terrorist identities found that 35 percent were involved in cases the FBI hadn't labeled as terrorism.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Newsday the 2009 audit was one of a number of critical government assessments. He said keeping people on the list who don't deserve to be included distracted law enforcement officials from hunting for real terrorists.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said the FBI handling of the list has gotten better, though he still is not satisfied with the pace of change. King, the ranking GOP member on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he believed the Christmas bombing attempt would give impetus to the Obama administration to rectify problems. The White House is scheduled to release a report on the incident today.

Responding to the audit last year, the FBI said it improved staff training and appointed list coordinators in all 56 field offices.

A spokesmen for the Department of Justice referred calls to the FBI, where a spokesman declined to comment Wednesday night.

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