WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Wednesday charged that the Administration’s failure to consolidate a dozen terrorist watch lists exposes the public to “unacceptable risk.” In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, he asked for a timetable for when the Administration would complete the job. For over a year, Lieberman said, various members of the Administration have promised they would consolidate the lists so that state, local, and federal law enforcement officers, as well as U.S. consulates abroad, and U.S. border and customs officials, could consult a unified list while performing their daily routines.
“When used effectively, terrorist watch lists can help us keep terrorists out of our country or assist in capturing them if they get in,” Lieberman said. “However, multiple watch lists in multiple locations do not maximize our government’s potential effectiveness in screening out and capturing terrorists.” The General Accounting Office has identified 12 terrorist watch lists scattered throughout nine federal agencies. Two of the September 11 suicide hijackers should have been placed on a terrorist watch list a full twenty months prior to September 11th. Had that occurred, they might have been arrested before carrying out their evil plans. Lieberman has called on President Bush to issue an executive order requiring consolidation of all federal terrorist watch lists so that they can be tapped into by first responders by the end of this year. Lieberman said the executive order should clarify that Ridge, as the top official in charge of homeland security, should be responsible for consolidating and disseminating the lists. In his letter, Lieberman said Ridge’s recent comments on the watch lists signal “ambiguity about who is responsible” for merging them, which “reflects a striking lack of leadership on the President’s part to demand that this yawning gap in our homeland defenses be fixed.” Both the GAO and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees’ Joint Inquiry into September 11th failures recommend consolidating the lists. “This problem needs to be fixed,” Lieberman wrote. “Potentially fatal gaps in our watch list system should be closed. It is important to have a consolidated national watch list operating around the clock to alert us to terrorists attempting to enter our country.” Text of the letter follows: August 6, 2003 The Honorable Tom Ridge
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528 Dear Mr. Secretary: The Administration’s lack of success in consolidating the myriad terrorist watch lists scattered among several federal agencies has been an intolerable failure that exposes the American public to unacceptable risk. Unfortunately, your recent comments on the subject have served to confuse, rather than clarify the situation. During an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on August 3, 2003, you stated that the Department of Homeland Security “is in charge of overseeing” the consolidation of the watch lists, along with “the homeland security group within the White House.” You also said the Terrorist Threat Integration Center “will have control over all the consolidation of all these watch lists.” And you said, “Everyone is involved in the consolidation.” These responses indicate a clear sense of ambiguity about who is responsible for accomplishing this long overdue task. More troubling, however, is that it reflects a striking lack of leadership on the President’s part to demand that this yawning gap in our homeland defenses be fixed. Last week, I called on President Bush to issue an executive order requiring the consolidation of all the federal government’s terrorist watch lists so that they are ready to be tapped into by local, state, and federal law enforcers by the end of this year. The executive order should also clarify that you, as the top administration official in charge of homeland security, will be the primary official in our government responsible for consolidating, and assuring the dissemination to all the necessary agencies, of those lists. I am writing to ask for a precise timetable for the completion of the consolidation and dissemination of the unified list. The absence of progress on this task has gone on for entirely too long. On April 30, 2003, at a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security hearing, you testified that you had been working for several months at consolidating the terrorist watch lists generated by many agencies of the federal government. You also stated that now you were accelerating those efforts to consolidate the watch lists and, at the same time, create a comprehensive distribution system for the consolidated list. However, last month, a senior administration official reported to my staff that there has been no progress toward consolidating the watch lists. When used effectively, terrorist watch lists can help us keep terrorists out of our country or assist in capturing them if they get in. The watch lists inform our consular affairs officers abroad who form our first line of defense to screen out terrorists. They also inform our immigration and customs officers at our borders, our second line of defense, so that they can detain and deport terrorists. Then, if terrorists succeed in entering our country, the watch lists can assist in identifying them so that local, state, and federal law enforcement officers can effectively search for and capture them. However, multiple watch lists in multiple locations do not maximize our government’s potential effectiveness in screening out and capturing terrorists. Multiple lists in multiple locations confuse analysts who may not know which list at which agency to use to place terrorist names or look for them. These lists have not always been cross-referenced nor have they always been accessible due to classification concerns or technological connectivity. The cost of consolidating watch lists should be relatively small when compared to the billions of dollars needed to physically secure our borders against illegal entrants who might be terrorists. With an effective and consolidated terrorism watch list system, consular officers abroad can deny visas to suspected terrorists, border security agents can detain and deport such individuals, and, police officers in communities across the country can, if they can check names against the watch list, potentially find and arrest suspected terrorists. Indeed, two of the September 11 suicide hijackers should have been placed on our government’s watch list a full twenty months prior to September 11, 2001. And recently, press reports stated that some members of the terrorist al-Qaeda cell of 19 responsible for the bombings that killed 9 Americans in Saudi Arabia on May 12, 2003 might have departed Saudi Arabia shortly before the bombings. Establishing a national watch list center so that it can correct the failings of the past and increase our chances of catching these and other terrorists before they head in our direction and ignite harm in our country should be one of our highest national priorities. We urgently need a national watch list center that combines all of the government’s terrorist watch lists and makes a consolidated list available instantly. There appears to be a broad consensus that the multiple watch lists should be consolidated. In their Joint Inquiry into the terrorist events of September 11, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees recommended the creation of a national watch list center responsible for combining and melding all terrorist watch lists and their dissemination systems. Such a center would have the best chance of guaranteeing a constant flow of terrorist names into it from all the relevant collectors of such information. Creation of a national center would also be an effective way of promoting its use among federal, state, and local agencies as well as the private sector. The President and the CIA Director stated over a year ago that the consolidation was being done. The President said it in his National Strategy for Homeland Security in July 2002: “We will build and continually update a fully integrated, fully accessible terrorist watch list.” The Director of the CIA testified twice to Congress in June and October of 2002: “The CIA and the State Department are cooperating to transform the TIPOFF all-source watch list into a National Watch List Center. This center will serve as the point of contact and coordination for all watch lists in the U. S. Government.” The General Accounting Office (GAO) believes DHS should take the lead in addressing this issue. Last month GAO identified nine federal agencies that have developed and maintained 12 watch lists related to terrorism and recommended that “the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security take a series of steps aimed at ensuring that watch lists are appropriately and effectively standardized, consolidated, and shared.” I strongly agree with this recommendation and urge you to give this matter your immediate, priority attention. This problem needs to be fixed. Potentially fatal gaps in our watch list system should be closed. It is important to have a consolidated national watch list operating around the clock to alert us to terrorists attempting to enter our country. I look forward to hearing from you that a national consolidated terrorist watch list center is up and running at your Department. Sincerely, Joseph I. Lieberman