Are You on a Terrorist Watch List?

Special Agent McCabe was glad to chat, but he was miserly with details about the Terrorism Watch List. It’s easy to accept the need for some secrecy. After all, it’s undoubtedly easier to find a terrorist who doesn’t know you’re looking for her (though Ptech may have taken care of that already). But couldn’t the FBI toss a bone to the press and let us know, say, how many names are on the list?

“I don’t think that’s something we can divulge,” said McCabe.

At the CIA, The Rake got the cold shoulder. Asked about their listmaking activities, Langley press agent Paul Nowack gave a short seminar on how to keep the phone lines open:

“We’re not providing details of what information we do or don’t provide anyone.”

Hoping to seduce him with a possible success story, we read the names of some recently captured terrorism suspects with Twin Cities connections: Ilya Ali, Muhammed Abid Afridi, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi. Could he find out if they’d been watchlisted prior to capture?

“No.”
“Could I get your name again?”
“The name’s Paul. Surname is Nowack. N. O. W. A. C. K.”
“Mr. Nowack, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Bye.”

We did find out that the CIA is not necessarily sitting on its hands. Perhaps the biggest list of all is the one with the longest name: The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS). Kelly Shannon, public affairs officer for the bureau, confirmed that the CIA does supply data for the CLASS system. Despite agent Paul Nowack’s reticence on this topic, that’s widely considered a good thing.

“Information sharing” has become something of a fetish in the intelligence community since some high- profile failures have come to light in the wake of 9/11; congressional testimony from the State Department, the FBI and the CIA reveals that they have all gone absolutely gaga over the notion of telling each other everything.

In Minnesota, we know all about information sharing. Our own Colleen Rowley tried to alert FBI headquarters about Zacarias Moussaoui before information sharing had become so fashionable.

Embarrassing intelligence failures don’t end with Moussaoui. The same FBI department that denied Rowley’s request to investigate Moussaoui also declined a request by field agents in New York to search for Khalid Almihdar, who helped crash a plane into the Pentagon less than two weeks later. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that two other 9/11 hijackers were able to enter the United States because the CIA had not added them to TIPOFF, despite CIA knowledge of their connection to the bombing of the U.S. warship Cole one year before. According to the same story, another top Al Qaeda operative was added so late that he may have entered the United States. Linked to the Cole attack and the 1998 west Africa embassy bombings, Tawfiq Attash Khallad remains at large, possibly in the United States.

The U.S.A. Patriot Act now requires “intelligence” sources to add their records to CLASS, according to congressional testimony by Ambassador Francis X. Taylor. The act also mandates that FBI records be added to CLASS, in addition to lists from the State Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (which still runs TIPOFF). All visa applicants who wish to enter the United States must be checked against this database of nearly 13 million names. This is the sort of information sharing, said Shannon, that ought to correct the kind of failures that allowed some of the 9/11 hijackers into the country.

While CLASS adds to its girth from the lists of other agencies, it has also become a clearinghouse of sorts. “We share this with all federal agencies,” said Shannon. On a scale this large, even the most fervent apostles of listmaking anticipate the danger of biting off more than they can chew. One has to wonder how useful such a list becomes, when there are more people on it than off it. For data of any kind to be useful from such a compilation, a little triage is necessary, says agent Paul McCabe: “If the CIA sent us every piece of information they gathered, we’d be brought to a standstill.”

Still in its infancy, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the agency with perhaps the most at stake in winnowing out the important information. While many federal agencies embrace bafflingly wide jurisdictions (such as alcohol, tobacco, and firearms), TSA’s mandate is simple and essential: Keep weapons and terrorists off airplanes. In Minneapolis, that’s Deputy Director Jim Welna’s job.

“We’re trying to find a needle in a haystack,” said Welna. “Anything we can do to reduce the size of the haystack is a good thing.” For this, TSA depends on the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System (CAPPS). Not exactly a list, CAPPS runs passenger names and ticket data through a software program that selects the lucky few to get a high-level screening. Although the flying public seems largely willing to take this medicine for its own good, airport security is the most obvious friction point in the age of Homeland Security. When information travels more freely, citizens might not, and some controversy is inevitable when the pampered American flying class gets a wand in the crotch a few too many times.

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