FBI'S `WATCH LIST' MUTATES
- FBI'S POST-SEPT. 11 `WATCH LIST' MUTATES, ACQUIRES LIFE OF ITS OWN
Bureau Gave It to Companies; Now, Out-of-Date Versions Dog Some
People Named --- Still Citing the Atta Brothers
Ann Davis, Wall Street Journal, 11/19/02
LAS VEGAS -- When a patron at the New York-New York casino plugged
his frequent-player card into a slot machine one day this summer,
something strange happened: An alert warned the casino's
surveillance officials that an associate of a suspected terrorist
might be on the grounds.
How did a casino's computer make such a connection? Shortly after
Sept. 11, the FBI had entrusted a quickly developed watch list to
scores of corporations around the country.
Departing from its usual practice of closely guarding such lists,
the FBI circulated the names of hundreds of people it wanted to
Counterterrorism officials gave the list to car-rental companies.
Then FBI field agents and other officials circulated it to big
banks, travel-reservations systems, firms that collect consumer
data, as well as casino operators such as MGM Mirage, the owner of
New York-New York.
Additional recipients included businesses thought vulnerable to
terrorist intrusion, including truckers, chemical companies and
power-plant operators. It was the largest intelligence-sharing
experiment the bureau has ever undertaken with the private sector.
A year later, the list has taken on a life of its own, with
multiplying -- and error-filled -- versions being passed around like
bootleg music. Some companies fed a version of the list into their
own databases and now use it to screen job applicants and customers.
A water-utilities trade association used the list "in lieu of"
standard background checks, says the New Jersey group's executive
The list included many people the FBI didn't suspect but just wanted
to talk to. Yet a version on SeguRed.com, a South American security-
oriented Web site that got a copy from a Venezuelan bank's security
officer, is headed: "list of suspected terrorists sent by the FBI to
financial institutions." (The site's editor says he may change the
heading.) Meanwhile, a supermarket trade group used a version of the
list to try to check whether terrorists were raising funds through
known shoplifting rings. The trade group won't disclose results
The watch list shared with companies -- one part of the FBI's
massive counterterrorism database -- quickly became obsolete as the
bureau worked its way through the names. The FBI's counterterrorism
division quietly stopped updating the list more than a year ago. But
it never informed most of the companies that had received a copy.
FBI headquarters doesn't know who is still using the list because
officials never kept track of who got it...
Then there's the problem of getting off the list. At first the FBI
frequently removed names of people it had cleared. But issuing
updated lists, which the FBI once did as often as four times a day,
didn't fix the older ones already in circulation. Three brothers in
Texas named Atta -- long since exonerated, and no relation to the
alleged lead hijacker -- are still trying to chase their names off
copies of the list posted on Internet sites in at least five
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