WASHINGTON — Six years after the terror attacks of 2001, an FBI unit failed to post the names of at least 20 known or suspected terrorists on a massive watch list that helps border and law enforcement agents keep al Qaida operatives out of the country, government auditors reported Thursday.
Even a single omission of a suspected terrorist's identity or other inaccuracy on the watch list, which contains 700,000 names, ``can have enormous consequences,'' warned the auditors from the Justice Department's inspector general's office.
They also reported that 38 percent of a sample of 105 records from the watch list contained errors or inconsistencies that hadn't been picked up in routine quality-assurance checks.
Staffers in the bureau's Terrorist Screening Center have compiled the watch list since 2003 from a dozen law enforcement and intelligence agency watch lists, so that all agencies can work with the same, complete list.
The audit, portions of which were classified, was a follow-up to a critical 2005 inspector general review of the effort, which found computer problems, names missing and inaccurate or inconsistent information. The earlier report urged a file-by-file review to ensure that the list is complete and accurate.
The consolidation into a single watch list is aimed at meeting a recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission, which criticized the CIA for identifying two of the suicide hijackers as suspected terrorists in late 2000, but failing to inform the Immigration and Naturalization Service until they'd already entered the United States. The two men, Nawaf al Hazmi and Khalid al Midhar, were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.
Auditors credited the FBI for making considerable headway since 2005 to ensure the quality of the watch list data and for setting up an office where people mistakenly listed can seek relief. But the auditors said problems continue, in part because the bureau is using two different ``interconnected'' versions of the watch-list database. They said routine quality control efforts continue to overlook inaccuracies.
Mistakes in the data not only can prevent Border Patrol officers and others from identifying a terror suspect, but also could endanger the officers' safety because they lack appropriate ``handling instructions,'' they wrote.
The auditors expressed concern that the screening center's review of the accuracy of the watch list — which as of last April was growing by an average of 20,000 records per month — could extend beyond year's end, the bureau's projected finish date.
In a response to the audit, Willie Hulon, the executive assistant FBI director who oversees the national security branch, said the bureau agrees with most of the auditors' 18 recommendations for ensuring that a ``thorough, current and accurate'' list is available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
He said he believes that the screening center ``has improved the security of the homeland.''