SIXTH COLUMN

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

6,000 terror watch list hits inside U.S.

Hattip: Counterterrorism Blog

The U.S. government's Terrorist Screening Center says there have been about 6,000 "encounters" inside the United States between law enforcement or other officials and people on the center's terrorist watch list since it was set up on Dec. 1, 2003.

Donna Bucella, the center's director, told reporters in Washington Tuesday that "about 6,000 individuals who are known or suspected international terrorists have been encountered within the United States."
She said that about 40-50 percent of the encounters were "repeats" -- i.e. the same person encountered more than once -- but declined to give the total number of individuals involved.

"I don't mean at our borders," Bucella added, saying the encounters could have happened as a result of traffic stops by state or local law enforcement, or when the watch-listed person applied for a gun permit or a commercial driver's license to haul hazardous materials.

She said there had been "a very small number" of arrests as a result of the encounters.
Other officials sought to play down the impression that thousands of terrorists were lose in the United States, saying that some of the individuals might have only a peripheral connection to some terrorism investigation.
"Not everyone in the database is Mohammed Atta," said Bucella's chief of staff, John Lightfoot.

"Among the 6,000 there are grades that go all the way from pale white to dark black and all the shades of grey in between," added John Miller, the FBI's head of public affairs, pointing out that the FBI's national security branch had between 15,000-20,000 open investigations at any one time, each of which might involve more than one person.
"These could be main subjects in a case, these could be early subjects in a case" that were later eliminated from the inquiry, Miller explained of people on the watch list.

Bucella said the center had received roughly 56,000 inquiries since it was set up on Dec. 1, 2003, and "about half" were positive, but most of these were from abroad, for instance when a person applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
The Terrorist Screening Center is an interagency unit set up to unify the dozen-plus watch-lists of terror suspects run by the U.S. government prior to the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings.

"This was something that law enforcement across the country was calling for" after Sept. 11, said Miller, describing the nation's 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies as "a post Sept. 11 force multiplier" for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.

Bucella said that the center had got positive matches from people that counter-terrorism officials did not know were in the United States.

The system is "a kind of radar" for counter-terrorism officials, "to show where these people are moving around," said Miller.
The screening center runs a database containing more than 350,000 names of people known or suspected to have ties to terrorism. In about 200,000 of those cases, Bucella said, there was enough information to enter the individual into the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, an FBI-run database that local police and government agencies can check to see if individuals have a criminal record or are wanted by the authorities.

The NCIC is updated automatically in real time as names are added to or taken off the screening center's list, but with databases maintained by other agencies -- like the State Department's visa database, CLASS, or the Border Patrol's IBIS system -- center officials upload updated versions of the list every day, Bucella said.

I was surprised. That's a lot of "encounters" with individuals with "possible ties to terrorism."

Why are these people still at large in the United States?

The "Counterterrorist," who claims to be a "former INS special agent," notes the following:

...how many of the individuals who were encountered by law enforcement officers during the course of carrying our their duties were aliens who are illegally in the United States. While it is certainly quite possible that there were people who were stopped because their names were similar to someone on a watch list, while they were not involved in terrorism, it is also entirely possible that some of the individuals who were stopped were involved in terrorism but while they are being scrutinized there is not sufficient evidence to take a law enforcement action against them. In such cases, it would be worthwhile to consider seeking their removal for committing immigration law violations if, in fact, they have violated these laws. The problem is that there are far too few ICE agents to handle these issues as effectively as they should. It would be interesting to know how many of these people who aroused suspicion were interviewed by an ICE agent, presuming that such person was, in fact, an illegal alien.

The point is that by enforcing the immigration laws from within the interior of the United States in that fashion, when individuals suspected of an involvement in terrorism are encountered, can yield benefits in two ways.
First of all, it may lead to the removal of an alien who, in addition to violating the immigration laws, is part of a terrorist organization. This random encounter with law enforcement resulting in such action being taken could conceivably disrupt the activities of a terrorist organization operating within our borders. Second, such an encounter might lead to the cultivation of an informant who might act as the "eyes and ears" of law enforcement officials engaged in investigating terrorist activities within our nation's borders. It should be remembered that terrorist activities are not limited to committing acts of violence but can include recruiting members for a terrorist organization, conducting surveillance of future targets and fund raising to bankroll terrorist operations either inside the United States or within another country.

These law enforcement activities require that we have an adequate number of special agents employed by ICE who can carry out these activities in support of our nation's purported war on terror. With fewer than 3,000 special agents assigned to the enforcement of the immigration laws at ICE for the entire United States of America, it is doubtful that ICE responded to many of these situations where their unique authority might have been brought to bear.

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