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Why Being On A Watch List May Not Matter

popupAs everyone knows by now Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigeran businessman who attempted to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, was already on a U.S. government watch list, thanks in part to the fact his father reported him to the U.S. Government. What is less clear is how someone on a watch list, who was denied a visa by the British, managed to get on a States-bound plane without being subjected to increased security (or any?). This explanation from a senior administration official, via Politico, may go some ways to answering that question: There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved.

‘There are over 400,000 individuals in the Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB), the main identities database within the U.S. Government for international terrorism. The TSDB is a subset of the 550,000 individuals contained in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), which is the Intelligence Community’s central repository of information on known and suspected international terrorists. Less than 4,000 of the names in the TSDB are on the ‘No Fly’ list and another 14,000 names are on the ‘Selectee’ list, which calls for mandatory secondary screening. There are established criteria for both the no fly and selectee lists. After the suspect’s father spoke to the US Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria the US government took action and shared the information with relevant agencies across the government which resulted in a TIDE record being created for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in November 2009. It was decided that there was insufficient information at that time based on existing watch list criteria to include him in the terrorist watch list, the no fly list or the mandatory secondary screening list, thus he was not ‘watch-listed’ as of 25 December 2009.’

Emphasis mine, because that is the sort of disclosure that is alternately going to result in accusations of too much political correctness at play, and/or the evils of government bureaucracy, or both (ahem, Glenn Beck). Press Secretary Robert Gibbs appeared to acknowledge the bureaucracy part at least on This Week yesterday noting that “these procedures are several years old” and Thursday’s incident had “precipitated both a watch listing review and a detection capabilities review” neither of which sound like the sort of thing that bear results anytime soon. So in the meantime probably be prepared for excess random security restrictions and extra, extra long lineups, and at least a few false alarms.

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