Counterterrorism Chief: Some on Terror Watchlist Allowed Into U.S. Because ‘We Want Them Here in the Country for Some Reason or Another’

January 27, 2010 - 11:11 AM
The director of the National Counterterrorism Center told a Senate committee that the United States sometimes chooses to allow people into the country who are on the Terrorist Watchlist.
Abdulmutallab, crotch bomber

This Dec. 2009 photo released by the U.S. Marshal's Service on Monday Dec. 28, 2009 shows Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Milan, Mich. Abdulmutallab, 23, is charged with trying to detonate an explosive device on a Dec. 25 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. (AP Photo/U.S. Marshal's Service)

(CNSNews.com) - Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee in a hearing last week that the United States sometimes chooses to allow people into the country who are on the federal government’s Terrorist Watchlist.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), the ranking minority member of the committee, said at the same Jan. 20 hearing that the government should suspend the U.S. visas of anyone whose name appears in its master database of all people with suspected connections to terrorism and then put the burden on them to prove “they do not intend to harm this nation or its citizens.”
 
Leiter made the statement about the U.S. government sometimes choosing to allow people on the Terrorist Watchist to enter the country in response to questioning by Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.), who wanted to know how many people on the list were allowed to enter the United States last year. (See video below.)
 
“We don't know exactly how many came into the country who were on the watch list?” asked Levin.
 
“No,” said Leiter. “I will tell you that when people come to the country, if they are on the watch list, it is because we have generally made the choice that we want them here in the country for some reason or another.”



A moment earlier in the hearing, when Sen. Levin asked Leiter how many terrorists on the watch list were allowed to enter the United States last year, Leiter said that under the watchlisting rules “a very large number” would have been at least eligible to do so.
 
“How many that were on the watch list last year, approximately, were allowed into the country?” asked Levin.
 
“Were on the watch list? A very significant number,” said Leiter. “Just to give you a snapshot, of course, the watch list is approximately 400,000 names. Out of those, I believe only approximately 14,000 were Selectees and only 4,000 No Flys. So a very significant number, would they have traveled to the United States, at most, would have been met at the border with some sort of secondary inspection.”
 
Levin then asked: “It would have been a large number that would not have been--that would have been allowed in?
 
“It would have been a very large number eligible to come in, whether or not they were ultimately turned away at the border--I can't give you that number,” said Leiter.
 
At the opening of the hearing, Sen. Collins said she believes the State Department should suspend any U.S. visa that has been given to any person on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)—and thus prevent travel by such persons in the United States. TIDE, which is maintained by Leiter’s NCTC, is the government’s master database of all information gathered about terrorists. It currently includes about 500,000 names. The Terrorist Watchlist—which is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center (under the auspices of the FBI) and which is formally known as the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB)—includes about 400,000 names. Most of these 400,000 names have been “exported” from the 500,000 names in the TIDE, but the names of a few domestic terrorists, contributed by the FBI, are also included in the TSDB.
 
“The president has now directed the intelligence community to determine which of the 400,000 suspected terrorists in the Terrorist Screening Center's watch list have valid U.S. visas,” said Collins. “But that response is not sufficient. The government should immediately identify and suspend the visas of all persons listed in the broadest terrorist database operated by the NCTC, known as the TIDE list, until a further investigation is undertaken in each case. These visa holders with suspected connections to terrorism should shoulder the burden of proving that they do not intend to harm this nation or its citizens. And if they cannot meet this burden, then we cannot take the risk of permitting them the privilege of traveling to our country.”
 
On December 9, 2008, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), sent a document to the House and Senate appropriations committees that stated that one reason TSA did not intend to use the full TSDB to screen all passengers boarding commercial air flights was because it could tip off people on the list who are not considered a direct threat to security but who are being monitored as part of a terrorist investigation. The document was sent to the committees because Congress had mandated in DHS’s fiscal 2009 appropriation that if TSA decided not to use the full watchlist to screen all air passengers it needed to certify to the committees that this policy created “no significant security risks” for air travel.
 
The government has created two subsets of the full TSDB that TSA now routinely uses to screen air passengers. These are the 14,000-name Selectee list and the 4,000-name No Fly list to which Leiter referred. People on the No Fly list are never allowed on planes. People on the Selectee list are subjected to heightened scrutiny at airports, but may still be allowed to board planes and fly.
 
In written testimony presented to the committee the same day Leiter testified, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano explained how TSA uses the Selectee and No Fly lists.
 
“As another layer of defense, DHS conducts pre-departure passenger screening in partnership with the airline industry and foreign governments in order to prevent known or suspected terrorists from boarding a plane bound for the United States or, as appropriate, to identify them for additional screening,” Napolitano said.
 
“DHS uses TSDB data, managed by the Terrorist Screening Center that is administered by the FBI, to determine who may board, who requires further screening and investigation, who should not be admitted, or who should be referred to appropriate law enforcement personnel,” she said. “Specifically, to help make these determinations, DHS uses the No-Fly List and the Selectee List, two important subsets within the TSDB.
 
“Individuals on the No-Fly List should not receive a boarding pass for a flight to, from, over, or within the United States. Individuals on the Selectee List must go through additional security measures, including a full-body pat-down and a full physical examination of personal effects,” she said.
 
The fact that using only the Selectee and No Fly list to screen people boarding airplanes allows some known or suspected terrorists to board planes was pointed out in a report published by the inspector general of DHS last July. “Not all known or reasonably suspected terrorists are prohibited from boarding an aircraft, or are subject to additional security screening prior to boarding an aircraft,” said the IG report. “This is reflected in the number of records and identities in the TSDB that are not included on the No Fly and Selectee lists.”
 
The same inspector general’s report said the Selectee and No Fly lists were designed to “prevent certain categories of terrorists from boarding” planes or subject them to heightened scrutiny before they were allowed to board. “In applying more narrow requirements than the TSDB’s minimum substantive derogatory criteria requirements, the No Fly and Selectee lists are intended to prevent specific categories of terrorists from boarding commercial aircraft or subject these terrorists to secondary screening prior to boarding, and are not for use as law enforcement or intelligence-gathering tools,” said the IG report.
 
In its December 2008 certification to the congressional appropriations committees affirming that it was safe to use only the Selectee and No Fly lists to screen air passengers, TSA said: “Another factor [in the decision] is that the TSDB includes records of persons who have been determined to not pose a threat to aviation or national security and are actively being monitored by law enforcement; overt scrutiny prior to boarding an aircraft could jeopardize the related terrorism investigation and would have a negative impact on overall security.”
 
In last week’s hearing, Leiter ultimately told Levin that people on the terrorist watchlist who come to the United States are generally people that the United States has made a choice to let in.
 
“We don't know exactly how many came into the country who were on the watch list?” asked Levin.
 
“No,” said Leiter. “I will tell you that when people come to the country, if they are on the watch list, it is because we have generally made the choice that we want them here in the country for some reason or another.”
 
In joint written testimony presented to the committee, Leiter and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate a suicide bomb Christmas Day on Northwest Flight 253, was on the TIDE list. Had all the intelligence about him been linked together in a timely manner, he also would have been added to the Terrorist Watchlist (TSDB). But Leiter and Blair said that even if everything known about Abdulmutallab had been linked together the question of whether he would have been put on the Selectee or No Fly lists would have depended on an “analytic judgment.”
 
“We had the information that came from his father that he was concerned about his son going to Yemen, coming under the influence of unknown religious extremists, and that he was not going to return home,” said Blair. “We also had other streams of information coming from intelligence channels that provided pieces of the story. We had a partial name, an indication of a Nigerian, but there was nothing that brought it all together—nor did we do so in our analysis.
 
“As a result, although Mr. Abdulmutallab was identified as a known or suspected terrorist and entered into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)—and this information was in turn widely available throughout the Intelligence Community—the derogatory information associated with him did not meet the existing policy standards—those first adopted in the summer of 2008 and ultimately promulgated in February 2009—for him to be ‘watchlisted,’ let alone placed on the No Fly List or Selectee lists,” said Leiter and Blair.
 
“Had all of the information the U.S. had available, fragmentary and otherwise, been linked together, his name would have undoubtedly been entered on the Terrorist Screening Database which is exported to the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security,” said Leiter and Blair. “Whether he would have been placed on either the No Fly or Selectee list—again based on the existing standards—would have been determined by the strength of the analytic judgment.”
 
At last week’s hearing, Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.) pressed Leiter on the question of how the  government decided whether someone like Abdulmutallab is put on the Selectee or No Fly lists. Leiter explained that it ultimately depends on an analyst making a judgment call about “what kind of operative he was and what his intention was.”
 
“I think it really does come down to: Where he would have been placed--Selectee or No Fly--really would have depended on what the analytic judgment was at the time,” said Leiter. “So looking at the signals intelligence and looking at what the father said, you put that together, and the question is: Would the analyst have said, we have a potential al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative, or we have a potential al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative who may be boarding an airplane to use a suicide bomb, or this individual is involved in plotting around December 25th to attack the United States.
 
“On that first one, under the existing standards, I think he’s likely in the Selectee, but likely not the No Fly,” said Leiter. “On the later analytic judgments, it's more likely that he gets into the No-Fly criteria. It's easy, after the fact, to look back and say, clearly, he should have been in the No Fly, but it really would have depended on what the analyst said, putting all those pieces together, about what kind of operative he was and what his intention was.”
 
In their written testimony, Leiter and Blair told the committee: “One of the clear lessons the U.S. Government has learned and which the Intelligence Community will support is the need to modify the standards for inclusion on such lists.”
 
In his exchange with Sen Coburn at the hearing, Leiter said: “That we ought to have standards that allow, frankly, a greater degree of flexibility—that you don't have to be able to predict exactly what an individual is going to do. If he has certain associations and is involved in any sort of operational activity, it's a pretty clear answer and that should be No Fly.”
 
Key excerpts from NCTC Director Michael Leiter’s Jan. 20 testimony to the Senate Homeland Security Committee:
 
Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.): I want to--a couple of questions for both Director Blair and Director Leiter. The intelligence community has been largely consistent in noting that had all the pieces of intelligence been connected this individual would have met the criteria for watch list--had it all been put together, would have met the criteria. However, there have been inconsistencies in views regarding whether he would have been put on the No Fly or Selectee lists.
You stated in your testimony that would have been determined by the strength of the analytic judgment, but officials in your organization have said he would not have met the criteria for No Fly or Selectee. And that's what they have reported to me. Can you explain the criteria and whether or not the information would have risen to the level of No Fly or Selectee?
NCTC Director Michael Leiter: Senator, it is not an easy yes-no question.
Sen. Coburn: I understand that. That's why I've asked you to explain it.
Leiter: I think it really does come down to: Where he would have been placed--Selectee or No Fly--really would have depended on what the analytic judgment was at the time. So looking at the signals intelligence and looking at what the father said, you put that together, and the question is: Would the analyst have said, we have a potential al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative, or we have a potential al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative who may be boarding an airplane to use a suicide bomb, or this individual is involved in plotting around December 25th to attack the United States.
On that first one, under the existing standards, I think he’s likely in the Selectee, but likely not the No Fly. On the later analytic judgments, it's more likely that he gets into the No-Fly criteria. It's easy, after the fact, to look back and say, clearly, he should have been in the No Fly, but it really would have depended on what the analyst said, putting all those pieces together, about what kind of operative he was and what his intention was. I think, from my perspective, the right answer, senator: We shouldn't try to parse it so closely in the first instance.
Sen. Coburn: I agree.
Leiter: That we ought to have standards that allow, frankly, a greater degree of flexibility—that you don't have to be able to predict exactly what an individual is going to do. If he has certain associations and is involved in any sort of operational activity, it's a pretty clear answer and that should be No Fly.
Sen. Coburn: Right. So we ought to err on the side of caution.

.......

Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Mich.):
How many that were on the watch list last year, approximately, were allowed into the country?
Leiter: Were on the watch list? A very significant number. Just to give you a snapshot, of course, the watch list is approximately 400,000 names. Out of those, I believe only approximately 14,000 were Selectees and only 4,000 No Flys. So a very significant number, would they have traveled to the United States, at most, would have been met at the border with some sort of secondary inspection.
Sen. Levin: It would have been a large number that would not have been -- that would have been allowed in.
Leiter: It would have been a very large number eligible to come in, whether or not they were ultimately turned away at the border--I can't give you that number.
Sen. Levin: That's sort of instinctively troubling, is it not?
Leiter: Senator, I think in one way, it is. And I think that goes right back to the standards, or what are the standards. Have we set the standard so low that we really have too high a bar to get somebody into that No Fly or Selectee list before they get to our shores?
Sen. Levin: I'm talking about the watch list who were allowed--We don't know exactly how many came into the country who were on the watch list?
Leiter: No. I will tell you that when people come to the country, if they are on the watch list, it is because we have generally made the choice that we want them here in the country for some reason or another.