The FBI Puts Suspects Online

  • Share
  • Read Later

Ready to share: Ashcroft

One of the lessons of September 11 is that there were crucial breakdowns in information sharing between state and local police officers and the FBI. For instance, it was only after the World Trade Center attacks that officials discovered that four of the September 11 hijackers had been stopped for speeding at various times. If police officers had known that the FBI was looking for the men, law enforcement officials would have had a better chance at tailing them — and perhaps uncovering the terror plot.

Now the feds have taken a big step toward keeping all law enforcement agencies in the loop. Under a directive issued Thursday by Attorney General John Ashcroft, the FBI has begun posting thousands of names of individuals identified by intelligence agencies as "suspected terrorists" but not charged with any U.S. crime on the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a powerful FBI-sponsored law enforcement database. The NCIC, accessible to 650,000 federal state and local law enforcement officers, traditionally contains data on people wanted as fugitives, criminal histories, stolen cars and other property and missing persons. It fields as many as 3.3 million queries a day, the vast majority during routine traffic stops. While acknowledging that some people could end up on a the potential terrorist list by mistake, Justice Department and FBI officials argue that the risks to individual liberties must be balanced against the greater national interest in detecting violent extremists who have slipped across the U.S. border. Also, Ashcroft aides say, local officers have a right to know if they?re about to give a traffic ticket to someone who may have been trained and indoctrinated to kill. Under the new system, officials say, terrorist suspects cannot be detained if there is no criminal warrant filed against them, but the NCIC will give the inquiring officer specific instructions about what to do — for instance, call the local FBI office and stall for time until agents can get to the scene and begin tailing their quarry.

Intelligence agencies have accumulated more than 100,000 names of terrorist suspects, U.S. officials say, although many of these are aliases or partial names for the same individuals. Officials say only those names for which there is more specific identifying information are being fed into the NCIC and the U.S. Customs Service's Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS), which is run at border crossing points. A greater number of names, including aliases, partial names and sound-alike names are being put into the Department of State's TIPOFF system, used to check foreigners seeking visas. Unlike a trooper making a traffic stop, Justice officials say, a consular officer has considerable time to investigate whether the applicant is, in fact, the same person who's referred to on the terrorist suspect list.