Single tip can now land a person on US terrorism watch list
WASHINGTON — A year after a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit, officials say they have made it easier to add individuals’ names to a terrorism watch list and improved the government’s ability to thwart an attack in the United States.
The failure to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the watch list last year renewed concerns that the government’s system to screen out potential terrorists was flawed. Even though Abdulmutallab’s father had told US officials of his son’s radicalization in Yemen, government rules dictated that a single-source tip was insufficient to include a person’s name on the watch list.
Since then, senior counterterrorism officials say they have altered their criteria so that a single-source tip, as long as it is deemed credible, can lead to a name being placed on the list.
The government’s master watch list is one of roughly a dozen lists, or databases, used by counterterrorism officials. Officials have periodically adjusted the criteria used to maintain it.
But civil liberties groups argue that the government’s new criteria, which went into effect over the summer, have made it more likely that individuals who pose no threat will be swept up in the nation’s security apparatus, leading to potential violations of their privacy and making it difficult for them to travel.
“They are secret lists with no way for people to petition to get off or even to know if they’re on,’’ said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Officials insist they have been vigilant about keeping law-abiding people off the master list.
The new criteria have led to only modest growth in the list, which stands at 440,000 people, about 5 percent larger than last year. The majority are non-US citizens.
“Despite the challenges we face, we have made significant improvements,’’ Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in a speech this month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And the result of that is, in my view, that the threat of that most severe, most complicated attack is significantly lower today than it was in 2001.’’
The standard for inclusion on the master watch list remains the same as it was before — that a person is reasonably suspected to be engaged in terrorism-related activity.