No-fly list procedure needs revamping, critics say


— The federal government’s no-fly list is controversial, secretive and
highly selective — and under intense scrutiny from congressional
leaders and President Barack Obama after last week’s attempted bombing aboard a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit.

The list is meant to prohibit known or suspected
terrorists from boarding planes within or headed for the U.S. It
includes fewer than 4,000 people, fewer than 200 of them American, and
notably did not including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian
accused of attempting to detonate an explosive on Northwest Flight 253
on Christmas Day.

Obama criticized the federal intelligence community
this week for not piecing together tips about Abdulmutallab, which the
president said should have landed him on the no-fly list.

On Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a letter to Obama that Abdulmutallab did not make the no-fly list because of a policy adopted under President George W. Bush last year that “limits the circumstances under which the government adds an individual to the watchlist.”

That policy, Feinstein said, “is too restrictive and should be changed. The U.S. Government
should watchlist, and deny visas to, anyone who is reasonably believed
to be affiliated with, part of, or acting on behalf of a terrorist

Obama has ordered a review of federal terrorism watch-list procedures.

The process of landing on the no-fly list begins with tips from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies.

Some of that information is “extremely vague” and
can be contradictory or unverified, a U.S. intelligence official said.
Other tips are specific and “much more useful as you try to understand
events and individuals,” said the official, who requested anonymity
because of the sensitivity of the issue.

—FIRST LEVEL: People identified by intelligence
agencies’ tips are entered into a database known as Terrorist
Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, which has about a
half-million names, including Abdulmutallab’s.

—SECOND LEVEL: Federal counterterrorism officials
scrutinize those names and whittle them to a “Terrorist Watchlist” of
approximately 400,000 people worldwide deemed to pose “reasonable
suspicion” of terrorist activity.

—THIRD LEVEL: About 14,000 appear on a “Selectee”
list of people who automatically trigger additional screening beyond
normal procedures.

—NO-FLY: About 3,400 people are placed on the no-fly
list, because they “present a threat to civil aviation or national
security,” Timothy Healy, the director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, told a congressional committee this month.

Abdulmutallab should have made the list, Obama and
others have said this week, because officials should have pieced
together warnings from Abdulmutallab’s father — who told officials at
the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria in November that his son had developed extremist views — and other bits of intelligence that pointed to a possible threat.

The no-fly list’s most prominent critic, the American Civil Liberties Union,
said in a news release Wednesday that it must be seriously revamped to
focus on “true terrorists who pose a genuine threat to flight safety.”

(c) 2009, Tribune Co.

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