Threshold for Getting Onto No-Fly List Lowered

(WIRED)   The government has lowered the criteria for putting someone on a watch list or no-fly list, and has revoked several U.S. visas as a result, according to CNN.

The action will result in more people being grounded from flights or undergoing secondary screening at airports. Officials wouldn’t indicate how many people might be affected.

The terrorist watch list has about 400,000 names on it, according to the most recent figures reported by the government. Most of them are non-U.S. citizens, and the list includes those suspected of providing financial assistance or aid to terrorists.

The “no fly” list, a subset of the watch list, contains about 3,400 names, of which about 170 are U.S. citizens or residents.

In addition to being used by airport security personnel to single out some travelers for extra screening or interrogation, the watchlist is used for, among other things, screening U.S. visa applicants and gun buyers as well as suspects stopped by local police.

In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day attack on a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, the government is re-evaluating why would-be bomber Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab wasn’t on its no-fly list — despite government and intelligence agencies receiving suspicious reports about him.

Although the attacker’s father reported concerns about his son to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, the government determined the information did not meet the standard for placing him on a no-fly list or for revoking his U.S. visa. His father had reported that AbdulMutallab had been expressing radical opinions, had broken ties with the family and might have visited Yemen.

The National Security Agency had also obtained communication intercepts that suggested a Nigerian national might be planning an attack against the United States. But because the dots were never connected, AbdulMutallab was able to slip through airport security.

The government won’t describe the new criteria it’s using for the watch list and no-fly list, other than to say it might involve an evaluation of how much information has been collected on an individual and how reliable the source is.

“It will involve an assessment of risk, the perception of risk and our tolerance of risk,” a senior government official told CNN.

The intelligence community has already used the new criteria to scour the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database of more than 500,000 suspects, resulting in new names being added to watch lists and no-fly lists.

The government wouldn’t say how many names were added or how many visas had been revoked as a result of the recent scrub, because the numbers are in flux.

Last month, the FBI reported to a Senate committee that U.S. law enforcement agents and partners had reported “encounters” with suspected terrorists 55,000 times in the last year, and that a check against the terrorist watch list had found a match 19,000 times. The latter figure includes multiple hits on the same people, according to an FBI spokesman, who didn’t know how many unique individuals were counted in the 19,000 hits.

When a person who matches the list is encountered, agents will arrest him (if there’s an outstanding warrant for the person), notify the local fusion center where the suspect resides, or collect additional details (including biometrics or information about traveling companions) to add to his profile.

A Justice Department inspector general report earlier this year found that the FBI was mishandling the watch list and was failing to add legitimate suspects under terrorist investigation to the list while also failing to properly update and remove records from the list, subjecting U.S. citizens to unjustified scrutiny.

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