Are You on a Terrorist Watch List?

Santa’s big season is behind us now, but it’s Christmas all year round at the FBI, where the jolly elf’s omniscient surveillance powers probably inspired a young J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list debuted on March 14, 1950, complete with cash rewards stuffed into the stockings of informants. The Ten Most Wanted list has played a role in nabbing more than 400 nasty criminals in its 52 years.

“Of course list-making is nothing new to police work,” said Inspector Nick O’Hara in a recent interview with The Rake. O’Hara, who served as special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minnesota field office from 1991 to 1994, remembers the Ten Most Wanted fondly. The list had fallen on hard times in the late 70s, with little attention paid to the cases other than dusting off the ubiquitous post-office mug shots. For a number of years, the list generated just one or two hits per annum. “The Most Wanted became a list of static individuals,” said O’Hara. “They’d been on there so long that the rationale for banging away at the public had been lost.”

As chief of the violent crimes section in the mid-80s, O’Hara said he wanted to take better advantage of the list, and assigned more agents to try some routine police work on the cases. By way of example, he told the story of Charles Lee Herron, who had been on the list for more than 20 years after killing two police officers in Tennessee. A mere six months of legwork netted not only Herron, but his three accomplices. Suddenly, there was an opening for a fresh face on the list.

Like retail inventory, O’Hara said turnover is the key to maintaining public interest. Over the next three years, they found 23 suspects on the Ten Most Wanted, making it popular again as a cultural institution.

Long before 9/11, the Ten Most Wanted had spun off a number of similar lists. A sister list is produced at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The Ten Most Wanted also mated with the FOX television network, hatching John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted television show, a strange joint effort of the entertainment industry and a federal law enforcement agency. Keeping in step with the times, the FBI has now created its own most-wanted list focusing on terrorists. Not to be outdone, the CIA reportedly has a list of Al Qaeda members who may be shot on sight, if they show up in public. “Lists are very important,” said O’Hara, clearly proud of these many iterations of a good idea.

“We have found and clearly recognized that lists are useful tools when conducting investigations and gathering intelligence,” agreed Special Agent Paul McCabe in a recent conversation with The Rake. McCabe, a talkative straight-shooter from the Minneapolis field office of the FBI, confirmed the existence of a new Terrorism Watch List. Not to be confused with the Most Wanted Terrorists list which has been made public, the Watch List was originally launched as Project Lookout shortly after 9/11.

Prior to 9/11, compiling the names of suspected terrorists was mostly the domain of TIPOFF. Started in 1987, TIPOFF is now a database of about 85,000 names compiled by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The State Department won’t divulge names on the list. It won’t say what specific use it makes of the list, or tell what the criteria are for getting on the list.

Typical. In fact, secret lists are all the rage now with federal agencies. Where the Ten Most Wanted thrived by being in the public eye, the new generation of lists seems to succeed on the strength of secrecy—though of course there’s no way to be sure they’re being used for anything at all, or if they’re working. To learn more about these secret lists, The Rake contacted half a dozen federal agencies. What the federal government most wants you to know is this: You don’t need to know.

Pages: 1 2 3 4