NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

FBI "Watch List" Creates Problems of Its Own

November 19, 2002

The Federal Bureau of Investigation usually guards closely the lists of names of persons it wants to question. But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it issued a quickly developed watch list to scores of corporations around the country.

The effort turned into an ongoing fiasco that victimized innocent persons, observers say, and raises questions about the government's information-sharing policies.

The list went to car-rental companies, big banks, travel-reservation systems, firms that collect consumer data, and even casino operators. Additional recipients included businesses thought vulnerable to terrorists -- including trucking firms, chemical companies and power-plant operators. It was the largest intelligence-sharing experiment the Bureau has ever undertaken with the private sector.

Now, a year later, versions -- many filled with errors -- have spread far and wide.

  • The list contained the names of many people the FBI didn't suspect of being terrorists but simply wanted to talk to.
  • Yet some bootlegged lists subsequently circulated identified people included as "suspected terrorists."
  • The effort, called "Project Lookout," is in many ways a study in how not to share intelligence, experts caution.
  • The list quickly became obsolete as the FBI worked through the names on it -- but the agency never informed most of the companies which had received a copy of it because officials didn't even keep a record of who got it.

People who have asked the FBI for help in getting off the bootlegged lists say they've been told the bureau can't do anything to correct outdated lists still floating around.

Source: Ann Davis, "FBI's Post-Sept. 11 'Watch List' Mutates, Acquires Life Of Its Own," Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2002.

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