US no-fly list doubles in a year
WASHINGTON EVEN as the Obama administration says it’s close to defeating Al Qaeda, the size of the government’s secret list of suspected terrorists who are banned from flying to or within the United States has more than doubled in the past year.
The no-fly list jumped from about 10,000 known or suspected terrorists one year ago to about 21,000, according to government figures provided. Most people on the list are from other countries; about 500 are Americans.
The flood of new names began after the failed Christmas 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner.
The government lowered the standard for putting people on the list, and then scoured its files for anyone who qualified. The government will not disclose who is on its list or why someone might have been placed on it.
The surge in the size of the no-fly list comes even as the US has killed many senior members of Al Qaeda. That’s because the government believes the current terror threat extends well beyond the group responsible for the September 2001 attacks.
“Both US intelligence and law enforcement communities and foreign services continue to identify people who want to cause us harm, particularly in the US and particularly as it relates to aviation,” Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole said in an interview.
The Nigerian man who pleaded guilty in the Christmas 2009 attack over Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was listed in a large US intelligence database that includes partial names and relatives of suspected terrorists.
That database is a feeder to the broad terror watch list, of which the no-fly list is a component, but only when there is enough information linking the person to terrorism.
Officials believe the US had enough information about Abdulmutallab at the time to put him on the broader terror watch list, which would have helped the intelligence community catch him.
The Christmas attack led to significant changes in how the US assembles its watch list.
Intelligence agencies across the government reviewed old files to find people who should have been on the government’s terror watch list all along, plus those who should be added because of the new standards put in place to close security gaps.
A senior Homeland Security Department official, Caryn Wagner, told senators on Tuesday during an oversight hearing, “We have been able to harness the intelligence from the intelligence community to inform our instruments to keep people out at our borders, to make sure that the wrong people are not getting on airplanes at last points of departure and to make sure that people who shouldn’t get them are not receiving immigration benefits from the department.” After the Christmas attack, “We learned a lot about the watch-listing process and made strong improvements, which continue to this day,” said Timothy Healy, director of the Terrorist Screening Center, which produces the no-fly list.
Among the most significant new standard is that now a person doesn’t have to be considered only a threat to aviation to be placed on the no-fly list.