U.S. Must Rethink Policy of Deliberately Allowing Terrorists into U.S. for Surveillance Purposes, Says Intelligence Vice Chairman
February 3, 2010 - 11:46 PMThe vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee said Wednesday that the United States needs to rethink its existing policy of sometimes deliberately allowing people on the Terrorist Watchlist to board airliners and enter the country so they can be covertly tracked for intelligence-gathering purposes.
“Unfortunately, nowadays, if you want to watch somebody, you may be taking a risk that it’s another Abdulmutallab,” Sen. Kit Bond (R.-Mo.) told CNSNews.com, referring to the Al Qaeda terrorist who unsuccessfully tried to detonate an underwear bomb on Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
“I think we got to be a lot more careful who we let in to watch,” said Bond. “I would prefer--and if you put them on the No Fly list it tips them off that you know something about them—but, I think, for the safety of the United States we have to err on the side of keeping them out.”
Bond, who answered CNSNews.com's question in a conference call with bloggers, said he believes recalibrating the policy of when people on the Terrorist Watchlist are allowed into the United States will require “a lot of thought and work,” but concluded: “I think we have to err on the side of keeping us safe from possible terrorist bombers or terrorist attackers.”
The federal government maintains an inverted pyramid of terrorist databases. At the top is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment—or TIDE—which contains all information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies about known or suspected terrorists. The TIDE includes about 500,000 names and is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which operates under the Director of National Intelligence.
One step down from the TIDE, is the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB)—commonly known as the Terrorist Watchlist. This list contains about 400,000 names, almost all of whom are foreign terrorists “exported” from the TIDE, although it also includes the names of a few domestic terrorists identified by the FBI. The TSDB is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which is overseen by the FBI.
The TSDB is an unclassified but sensitive list that was specifically created to allow agencies responsible for U.S. security to screen people for possible terrorism ties. It includes all people that the U.S. government knows or reasonably suspects are terrorists and has sufficient identifying information about to be able to successfully identify in processes like boarding an airplane.
The Selectee list and the No Fly list, which contain 14,000 and 4,000 names respectively, are subsets of the 400,000-name TSDB. Currently, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screens air passengers against the Selectee and No Fly lists, but not against the full TSDB. People on the No Fly list are not allowed to board planes, period. People on the Selectee list are pulled aside for additional screening, including pat-downs and searches of their belongings, but they are not barred from flying.
In compliance with a congressional mandate, TSA presented the House and Senate appropriations committees in December 2008 with a document certifying that TSA did not believe it would increase the risk to air travel to screen air passengers against only the No Fly and Selectee lists rather than the full TSDB. One explanation the TSA gave Congress for deciding not screening all air passengers against the full TSDB was that doing so might tip off some people who were under surveillance and thus compromise terrorist investigations.
“Another factor [in the decision not to screen all air passengers against the full Terrorist Watchlist],” the TSA said, “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 a January 20 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, NCTC Director Michael Leiter said he did not know exactly how many people on the Terrorist Watchlist entered the United States in 2009 but that it was probably a “very significant number.” He than added 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.”
When asked by CNSNews.com about Leiter’s statement and the TSA’s explanation that one reason it did not screen air passengers against the full Terrorist Watchlist was because it did not want to alert people who were under surveillance, Bond said: “That’s the quandary they’re in. He put it straight. Unfortunately, nowadays, if you want to watch somebody, you may be taking a risk that it’s another Abdulmutallab. These people are—they are now targeting people they think can get into the United States with United States ties to bring them in. And I think we’ve got to be a lot more careful who we let in to watch. I would prefer--and if you put them on the No Fly list it tips them off that we know something about them—but, I think, for the safety of the United States we have to err on the side of keeping them out.”
CNSNews.com asked Bond if he supported the policy that sometimes allowed people on the Terrorist Watchlist to enter the country so they could be put under surveillance for intelligence-gathering purposes.
“I think you have to be very careful about who you let in,” said Bond. “And that is, that requires a lot of thought and work. I think we have to err on the side of keeping us safe from possible terrorist bombers or terrorist attackers. So that is a question. We are going to continue to work with the Intelligence Community and the other agencies … to try to get a reasonable solution. But letting everybody in to watch has been shown to be—I believe is no longer acceptable.”
Here is a partial transcript of the conference call with Sen. Bond:
Terry Jeffrey: Sen. Susan Collins said about a week ago in the Homeland Security Committee, when Mr. Leiter was testifying, that she thought that the entire TIDE database—the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment—ought to be used for screening people and that anybody that is on that list ought to have their U.S. visa suspended. Do you agree with her that anybody who currently is on the TIDE list ought to have their U.S. visa suspended?
Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Kit Bond (R.-Mo.): The TIDE list is extremely broad. It requires--it’s information. But there should be a much tighter link up between those who are demonstrated to have the capability, intent and the ability and visas and the No Fly list. There are—there may be a lot of people on the TIDE list that are family members, relatives. I have a senior pastor in our church, who weighs less than a hundred pounds. He is 78 years old. He’s a good Scottsman named Robert Kerr (sp.). He got on the No Fly list. They got him off the No Fly list. They put him back on. The only thing I could say to him is apparently they have declared radical Presbyterians as a threat to our security. It disagreed with him.
Jeffrey: Senator, in that same hearing, Michael Leiter said, in response to a question from Sen. Carl Levin, that sometimes people who are on the TSDB—the Terrorist Watchlist--are allowed into the country because we choose to allow them into the country. When the Transportation Security Administration certified to the House and Senate appropriations committees that it was not going to screen against the full TSDB when people were boarding planes, one of the reasons they gave is because if they did that in some cases they would be alerting people who were under surveillance and perhaps jeopardize a terrorist investigation.
Bond: That’s the quandary they’re in. He put it straight. Unfortunately, nowadays, if you want to watch somebody, you may be taking a risk that it’s another Abdulmutallab. These people are—they are now targeting people they think can get into the United States with United States ties to bring them in. And I think we got to be a lot more careful who we let in to watch. I would prefer--and if you put them on the No Fly list it tips them off that you know something about them—but, I think, for the safety of the United States we have to err on the side of keeping them out. And hope that—
Jeffrey: So should we screen the entire TSDB? Or should they continue the practice that there is a No Fly list and Selectee list and that the rest of the people on the TSDB are not subjected to heightened scrutiny?
Bond: This is one of the ongoing discussions we’re going to have with them, because this is a tough, this is a tough challenge. And it’s really critical that we examine it, use the best intelligence we have, and make sure those we have reasonable grounds to believe might become suicide bombers not to let them back into the United States.
Jeffrey: Is it your view, senator, that it is an important and valuable policy of the United States to in fact sometimes let people on TSDB into the country so we can put them under surveillance and gather intelligence? Do you support that? Do you think that is a good policy?
Bond: I think you have to be very careful about who you let in. And that is, that requires a lot of thought and work. I think we have to err on the side of keeping us safe from possible terrorist bombers, or terrorist attackers. So that is a question. We are going to continue to work with the Intelligence Community and the other agencies [inaudible] to try to get a reasonable solution. But letting everybody in to watch has been shown to be—I believe is no longer acceptable.