Friday, March 28, 2014

Boston Bombing Suspect Avoided CIA, FBI Because His Last Name Was Misspelled In DHS Database

from the intelligence-screwups-also-include-typos dept

Everyone makes mistakes. There's hardly anyone out there who can claim a misspelling-free existence. And government employees -- even highly-trained analysts and agents charged with protecting national security -- are no different. Mistakes will be made. Let he who is without sin be the pedantic ass casting stones in the comments below, etc.

The problem is that when mistakes are made on highly-sensitive forms, the damage is almost irreparable. As we've covered extensively, an agent's failure to fill out paperwork properly put a non-terrorist on the government's "no fly" list for over a decade. To add insult to cock-up, the government spent most of that time trying to bury the challenge with layers and layers of "national security" obfuscation. Confirming or denying anything about terrorist watchlists would somehow lead to terrorists gaming the system.

Speaking of terrorist attacks, the Tsarnaev brothers somehow managed to elude those specifically tasked with preventing events like the Boston Marathon bombing. The same lack of inter-agency communication that allowed some 9/11 terrorists to return to the US unnoticed was at play in the recent attack. Unbelievably, these agencies have used both attacks as justification for leaving their surveillance powers intact, arguing that curtailing these programs will somehow prevent them from stopping the next 9/11 or Boston bombing -- despite having been unable to prevent either of those.

But these "terrorist watchlists" the government likes to keep are sacrosanct, even if they're populated by people who shouldn't be on there and missing people who should be, thanks to human error.
On January 21, 2012 Tsarnaev traveled to JFK airport in New York to board an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

Though an alert was triggered, Tsarnaev was not pulled out for a secondary search or interview. According to sources familiar with the report, there were almost 100 other names on the “Hot List” of individuals traveling through Customs at JFK that day, and Tsarnaev was not considered high priority.

Tsarnaev flew to Moscow, and then to Dagestan, where he stayed for six months and received jihad training, according to U.S. authorities.

On July 17, 2012, Tsarnaev flew back to the United States, landing at JFK. TECS notes remain in effect for one year. The initial TECS note had expired. The second, more urgent TECS note filed in October 2011 that said he might be armed and dangerous had not.

But no alert was triggered when Tsarnaev passed through Customs at JFK, because of the misspelling of his name on the second TECS note. The difference of one letter – Tsarnayev instead of Tsarnaev – meant that he was not detained or questioned despite the warning in his file, according to sources familiar with the report.
It's the sort of error anyone can make. But it had serious repercussions. In Tsarnaev's case, this error helped contribute to an attack on American citizens.

The government aggressively battles anyone who questions their placement on terrorist watchlists, ignoring the fact that it still employs human beings and that those people -- being human -- will occasionally make mistakes. No one's asserting any sort of maliciousness on the government's behalf in Ibrahim's case, but no one should to be willing to completely excuse its behavior in Tsarnaev's, either.

Errors will be made, but it's of utmost importance to correct them. The government needs to stop pretending its watchlists are infallible. It's not as though this is a recent development and possibly the first time these agencies have been made aware of the lists' shortcomings. Back in 2009, the Office of the Inspector General had this to say about the FBI's list.
We found that the FBI failed to nominate many subjects in the terrorism investigations that we sampled, did not nominate many others in a timely fashion, and did not update or remove watchlist records as required.... We believe that the FBI's failure to consistently nominate subjects of international and domestic terrorism investigations to the terrorist watchlist could pose a risk to national security.
The FBI failed in both directions, failing to add suspected terrorists to the list fast enough and being pretty much unresponsive when it came to removing those not deemed a threat. Add this to the fact that clerical errors will always be present in a certain percentage of records and you have a list whose veracity is highly questionable. But the government doesn't see it that way, and that's the problem.

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