Days before the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a new Justice Department Inspector General report found a computer glitch that should give Americans pause -- the government office that maintains the core terrorism watchlist failed to include as many as 20 known or suspected terrorist in its records.
"Our review revealed continued instances where known or suspected terrorists were not appropriately watchlisted on screening databases that frontline screening agents use to identify terrorists and obtain instruction on how to appropriately handle the subjects," the Inspector General noted in its report.
"We found at least 20 watchlist records that were not appropriately watchlisted to downstream screening databases," the report continued. "Even a single omission of a suspected or known terrorist from the watchlist is a serious matter."
The FBI is downplaying the audit, saying there's no evidence any of the suspected terrorists have come into the US. The audit, released on Thursday, was a follow up to an initial report in 2005.
The FBI says the computer problem has been addressed and various agencies still could have retrieved the information even though it wasn't flagged or forwarded to them.
In a statement, the Terrorism Screening Center said, "We are pleased that the OIG report found that the TSC has generally made significant improvements since the initial OIG Audit conducted nearly three years ago."
"The OIG report issued today found that the TSC has enhanced its efforts to ensure the quality of watch list data and has increased staff assigned to data quality management," the statement continued.
The Inspector General's office stressed the importance of keeping the list accurate and up-to-date.
"It is critical that the TSC further improve the quality of its watchlist data," Inspector General Glenn Fine said in a statement. "Inaccurate, incomplete, and obsolete watchlist information can increase the risk of not identifying known or suspected terrorists, and it can also increase the risk that innocent persons will be stopped or detained."
The TSC was established in 2003 and serves as a clearinghouse for police making traffic stops, customs inspectors and border patrol officers to look for individuals in the Terrorist Screening Database. The purpose is to intercept a potential terrorism suspect if they are stopped by police or to catch them at ports of entry coming into the US.
Several of the 9/11 hijackers had run-ins with U.S. law enforcement prior to the attacks. Ziad Jarrah, believed to be the at the controls on United flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, was pulled over by Maryland State Police two days before the attacks for speeding. Another hijacker, Hani Hanjour, was also ticketed for speeding one month before the 9/11 attacks.
The vast array of data being assembled by the TSC has been growing since the center was set up. "This growth adds to the analysts' workload. Since April 2004, the TSDB has more than quadrupled in size, growing from 150,000 to 724,442 records in April 2007," the Inspector General noted in its report.
According to the audit report, "The TSC reported that approximately 270 million individuals are screened by frontline screening agents and law enforcement officers each month."
Responding to the report, the TSC also said in a statement, "Prior to the creation of the TSC, the federal government relied on at least a dozen separate terrorist watch lists that were maintained by many different federal agencies. Because of the unified efforts of the TSC and its partner agencies, Americans are significantly safer today."