The watch list that is intended to keep suspected terrorists from entering the United States is too vague and cumbersome to help Homeland Security Department agents quickly weed out legitimate travelers, the agency's inspector general says.
Travelers whose names are similar to those on the watch list can be questioned and held for hours before being admitted into the country, according to a report released Monday by Homeland Security Inspector General Richard L. Skinner. That results in "an extremely inefficient use" of border officers' time, Skinner's report concluded.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers lack "authority to make timely and informed decisions regarding the admissibility of individuals who they could quickly confirm are not the suspected terrorist," the report found.
But Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen said Skinner's data appears to be "outdated," noting that Customs and Border Protection is already working on several programs to speed travelers into the country. He said the report also does not reflect what he called law enforcement techniques that borders officers use in questioning travelers whose names match those on the watch list.
"You need to go beyond sheer numbers at some point and look at effectiveness, and CBP continues to be effective at keeping terrorists from entering through our ports of entry," Agen said.
The 11-page report was a short, edited version of a classified document delivered to Homeland Security officials and Congress. It found that Customs and Border Protection officers often don't have the security clearances required to review information about travelers on the watch list. The report also concluded that the officers fail to uniformly report details of their encounters with suspicious travelers, potentially resulting in spotty intelligence analysis of terrorists.
In addition, Skinner found the stepped-up terrorism inspections at the nation's 324 air, land and sea ports of entry came as border arrests for drug smuggling and fake immigration documents have dropped.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., blamed "weak leadership" at Homeland Security that he said "has left our border protection agents poorly armed to stop terrorist infiltration."
The report "tells us that CBP has failed to provide its workers with the support they need to stop suspected terrorists from crossing our ports of entry," said Lieberman, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.