Letting Terrorists into US to Spy on Them

When besieged National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Michael Leiter, a veteran intelligence practitioner, disclosed last week at a Senate committee hearing looking into the failure of the Intelligence Community (IC) to uncover the botched Christmas Day bomb plot by Yemeni Al Qaeda franchise directed recruit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that known and suspected terrorists on US terrorist watch lists are sometimes secretly allowed into the country for clandestine counterterrorism intelligence collection purposes, there was a delayed, palpable surprise on the part of some lawmakers … and certainly conspiracy theorists.

Leiter’s revelation drew surprisingly negligible attention from the media, but the reportage it did garner was written with a near audible intonation that implied the practice not only is unusual IC tradecraft, but that it’s somehow the wrong thing to do.

Then, on Wednesday, Patrick Kennedy, Under Secretary of State for Management, expanded on Leiter’s revelation during his appearance before the House Committee on Homeland Security hearing, "Flight 253: Learning Lessons from an Averted Tragedy."

The public disclosures that individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism are knowingly allowed into the US first emerged in response to questioning by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich) during the public portion of the January 20 Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing, “Intelligence Reform: The Lessons and Implications of the Christmas Day Attack."

Leiter told the committee “that when people come to the country and they are on the watch list, it is because we have generally made the choice that we want them here in the country for some reason or another.”

While Leiter didn’t go into any further detail during the hearing, veteran IC counterterrorists (CT) explained in interviews with HSToday.us that there are times when individuals in terrorism databases and suspected and known terrorists who’ve deliberately been left off the No Fly and terrorist watch lists necessarily must be allowed into the country so that CT agents can gather vital intelligence on them, their movements, activities, and associations. The intent of such risky operations is to bust terrorist attacks against the United States.

Expanding on what Leiter disclosed last week, Kennedy, while responding to House HS Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson’s (D-Miss.) questions about when and how the State Department revokes US visas of persons suspected or known of involvement in terrorism, stated that the department doesn’t just “unilaterally” revoke the visas of an individual because the person may be the subject of an important CT intelligence gathering operation.

At the behest of federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, Kennedy explained in rather surprising detail, the department sometimes is asked to not revoke, and/or to provide visas to suspected or known terrorists in order to allow them into the United States so that their activities here can be monitored.

Kennedy explained: “We had a request from a law enforcement agency to not, revoke the visa [of a person suspected of terrorist activities]” that the Department had “come across information” indicating “this is a dangerous person. We were ready to revoke the visa,” but “we then went to the [intelligence] community and said, ‘should we revoke this visa?’ And one of the [IC] members said, ‘please, do not revoke this visa. We have eyes on this person. We are following this person who has the visa for the purpose of trying to roll up an entire network, not just stop one person.’”

“So,” Kennedy told the panel, “we will revoke the visa of any individual who is a threat to the United States, but we do take one preliminary step [first] … we ask our law enforcement and intelligence community partners, ‘do you have eyes on this person, and do you want us to let this person proceed under your surveillance so that you may potentially break a larger plot?’”

Kennedy’s point, though, seemed to be lost on Thompson, who in response said, “but I think the point that I’m trying to get at is, is this just another box you’re checking, or is there some security value to adding that box to the list” of things you check off as part of the routine process of revoking someone’s visa.

“The intelligence and law enforcement community tell us that they believe, in certain cases, that there’s a higher value of them following this person, so they can find his or her co-conspirators, and roll up an entire, plot against the United States, rather than simply knock[ing] out one soldier in that effort,” Kennedy answered.

In his prepared testimony, Kennedy stated “expeditious coordination with our national security partners is not to be underestimated. There have been numerous cases where our unilateral and uncoordinated revocation would have disrupted important investigations that were underway by one of our national security partners. They had the individual under investigation and our revocation action would have disclosed the US Government’s interest in the individual and ended our colleagues’ ability to quietly pursue the case and identify terrorists’ plans and co-conspirators.”

“No visa is issued without it being run through security checks against our partners’ data,” Kennedy added, noting that “we [have] specifically designed our systems to facilitate comprehensive data sharing. We give other agencies immediate access to over 13 years of visa data, and they use this access extensively. In November 2009, more than 16,000 employees of DHS, the Department of Defense, the FBI and [Department of] Commerce made 920,000 queries on visa records …”

Covert intelligence collection endeavors like this have been part of basic intelligence tradecraft 101 for a very long time, going back to counterintelligence operations during the Cold War against the Soviet Union, its East Bloc satellites and its other allies around the world.

Unidentified intelligence officials unofficially acknowledged several years ago that known and suspected terrorists had been allowed into the country in order to gather crucial intelligence, and that some of these individuals are not necessarily entered into the government’s consolidated Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB) from which individuals are nominated to be placed on the No Fly and terrorist watch lists.

Intelligence officials explained at the time that crucial counterterrorism investigations necessitated not putting the names of some specific known and suspected terrorists under investigation on any list, including the No Fly list, so as to not tip them off that US counterterrorists have them under surveillance.

Last July, the unclassified version of the DHS Inspector General (IG) report, Role of the No Fly and Selectee Lists in Securing Commercial Aviation, disclosed that “not all known or reasonably suspected terrorists are prohibited from boarding an aircraft.” Details about the “factors that merit consideration and might mitigate the decision to place an individual on the No Fly or Selectee list” were redacted from the report.

In his March 17, 2009 memorandum to Acting Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Administrator Gale Rossides regarding TSA’s comments to the draft report, the DHS IG noted that “some individuals are not included on the [No Fly and Selectee] lists who may also prevent vulnerabilities to aviation security …”

The IC officials interviewed by HSToday.us said, “you can look to what Leiter and Kennedy had to say” to infer what the classified reasons are for “these individuals being allowed entry into the United States,” as one of the authorities said.

Nevertheless, some lawmakers and media covering the January 20 Senate HS committee hearing expressed near outrage that known and suspected terrorists are secretly allowed to enter the country, even if it’s done to gain additional vital intelligence on what they’re up to.

"In certain situations it’s to our advantage to be able to track individuals who might be on a terrorist watch list because you can learn something from their activities and their contacts," an intelligence official confirmed to Congress Daily, which first reported what Leiter said at the January 20 hearing.

But “this would not include individuals who are on the No Fly list," the official added. Several IC counterterrorists though told HSToday.us that under certain circumstances when intelligence is crucial, a person on the No Fly list could indeed be ordered to be allowed into the country without tipping the person to the fact that he or she is on the list, which comports with what Kennedy and the DHS IG indicated.

“There are absolutely cases in which we need to be able to allow individuals involved in terrorist activity to enter the country,” 20-year veteran CIA terrorist hunter Charles Faddis told HSToday.us.

Faddis, who when he retired from the Agency last spring headed the NCTC unit hunting terrorists trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction (see the January Homeland Security Today report, “The WMD Connection”), said “prohibiting this practice would be unwise and counter-productive. If we have a guy inbound whom we expect to meet with other operatives inside the United States, we very much want him to come here so we can surveil him and in the process identify additional members of his network. If we block him from entry, all we are doing is tipping him to the fact that we are on to him and denying ourselves intel.”

“Actually, that is pretty standard tradecraft and makes sense, if they are sure they can track such characters. However, both TIDE [Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment] and the FBI database are virtually worthless. Listings of 400 to 500,000 names with no supporting information (like affiliations, aliases, etc.) are not really very useful and one has to ask who does quality control on names entered and how sophisticated the retrieval applications are,” HSToday.us was told by a 42-year intelligence and IC contracting community veteran who has trained some of NCTC’s analysts.

“Certainly there are instances in which individuals under suspicion by national security officials for any number of reasons, possibly terrorism-related among them, are permitted into the country,” explained several decades-long CIA veteran Clare Lopez, who served domestically and abroad in a variety of assignments with a focus on the Middle East, homeland security, national defense, and counterterrorism.

This “doesn’t automatically mean the individual personally is involved in terrorism or whatever, but the opportunity to observe behavior, connections, travel, other activities while here can be valuable from an intelligence perspective, especially if the individual may not yet be aware of US intel interest,” Lopez said, noting that “allowing the visit while keeping close tabs could result in all sorts of connected dots on a link analysis display.”

But as Leiter told the Committee, and which has been confirmed in interviews with past and present IC CT officials, NCTC analysts still do not have the capability to simultaneously query the multitude of terrorism and intelligence databases in a Jack Bauer-CTU-like way. This problem, which is compounded by shortcomings in the CT analytical capabilities of the NCTC and IC, will be the subject of an upcoming Kimery Report.

Testifying Wednesday before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Leiter acknowledged that CT intelligence “database integration, cross-database searches, and the ability to correlate biographic information with terrorism-related intelligence” has to be improved. These are all capabilities that were called for by the 9/11 Commission, the post-9/11 restructuring of the IC, and earlier by congressional blue-ribbon and NGO studied on intelligence reform.

In response to Leiter’s original disclosure that known and suspected terrorists are allowed into the United States for intelligence collection purposes, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), the ranking minority member of the Senate HS Committee, said the government nevertheless should suspend or revoke visas to anyone who is in TIDE.

Meanwhile, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) implied that she was unaware of the practice – although it’s tried and true tradecraft well known to both the Senate and House intelligence committees – and questioned whether it is a responsible CT intelligence collection practice.

"I’m strongly opposed to letting anyone that’s on the watch list into the country, period,” Feinstein surprisingly stated.

Feinstein’s comment quickly raised questions about whether the intelligence committees have been briefed on intelligence operations that involve letting known or suspected terrorists into the US as part of CTintelligence collection activities.

“It is surprising that someone like Dianne Feinstein, who ought to know better in her position, wouldn’t appreciate that something like this could be a useful tool for the intel community … and to even consider enacting a law to prohibit it seems knee-jerk and irresponsible,” Lopez commented.

Given the failure of the CT community to not foresee the Christmas day bomb plot or operational capability of Al Qaeda in Yemen – despite the abundance of intelligence that an experienced subject-matter analytical cadre with access to the appropriate intelligence should have recognized – coupled to their failure to see the “indicators” of Muslim Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s jihadist radicalization, have raised questions about whether terrorists of interest reasonably can be expected to be successfully followed if allowed into the US.

“Today, in this inept environment, it would be a huge gamble – I don’t know that I trust the coordination between so many offices that are necessary to pull off a high-value target surveillance like you’re talking about,” said a disgruntled, longtime IC official. An official who, conversely, conceded that such operations “are part and parcel of basic target tradecraft.”

He added: “So far, the few tracking ops that have been authorized where we’ve allowed terrorists to get on planes have gone off without a hitch … but they’re risky and getting riskier – I guess I’d have to say we’ve been lucky and haven’t lost sight of someone or screwed up by actually letting a terrorist on board [an aircraft] with a real bomb.”

Commenting on the mini-ruckus over Leiter’s admission that terrorists are sometimes secretly allowed to enter the US on airliners and Feinstein’s resulting outrage over the practice, Faddis said: “I will say this … I think part of what is prompting this kind of rhetoric from Congress [referring to Feinstein’s comment] is a lack of confidence. They do not have faith that [the Department of Homeland Security] and NCTC know what they are doing. Intertwined with that is a perceived lack of accountability. In the wake of every problem, we hear a lot about changes in procedure but we never see any sign that anyone is actually being held responsible.”

“I do agree … that there’s a lack of congressional confidence in DHS, CIA, FBI, NCTC, etc. – and with perfectly good reason,” Lopez added. “Those leading our national security efforts these days – from John Brennan to Michael Leiter to Dennis Blair to Janet Napolitano – appear clueless, hapless, out of their depth."

“And with every new attack, crisis, and terrorist plot that makes the evening news,” Lopez continued, “their public performance seem to go from bad to worse to catastrophic to OMG, why couldn’t they be French or something … but, right: no consequences ever seem to follow. Not unique to this administration – post 1993 [World Trade Center] bombing, post 1996 Khobar Towers, post 1998 East Africa Embassy bombings, post 9/11, no heads rolled then either.”

“Lots of new bureaucracy created, but no personal responsibility demanded,” Lopez observed, adding that the “worst part, in my view, is that no one, whether at CIA, DHS, FBI, or DoS, seems to actually know who terrorists or incipient jihadis are – not just whether or not to let them into the country (or the Army’s medical schools), but who they are in the first place.”

Outspoken 20-year CIA veteran Robert Steele, who was among the first clandestine services case officers to be focused on the terrorist threat full-time in the 1980’s and served in three of the Agency’s four directorates and was instrumental in setting up the Marine Corps Intelligence Center, offered a more pessimistic response to the question of whether allowing known and suspected terrorists into the country is warranted in so far as intelligence is needed on these individuals.

The short answer is, hell no. CIA and FBI are fuck-ups across the board, they treat these players like pawns on a chessboard, but neither CIA nor FBI knows how to play chess, they are still in the checkers stage … I have seen an awful lot of indications that FBI runs operations that get out of control and then they run around blaming others.”

“If we had a proper counterterrorism and counterintelligence unit dedicated to this stuff that could actually do surveillance and not get caught, then, yes, it might be good to do,” Steele candidly told HSToday.us. “It might also be necessary because NSA is running out of answers – in El Salvador the extreme left knew not to use the telephone, and that was 1980-1981.”

Similarly, former DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin stated in arecent New York Times op-ed that “given Al Qaeda’s known obsession with attacking our aviation system and its tendency to go after the same target repeatedly, anyone on a terror watch list should automatically be placed on the No Fly list. To those who fear that doing so would tip off an unsuspecting terrorist that we are watching him, I say it is far better to do that than to risk an attack. At least, people known to be, or suspected of being, tied to terrorism should automatically be placed on the so-called selectee list, so that they are subject to especially thorough airport screening.”

Steele said that in his opinion, the “bottom line” is “the US public is at much greater risk from a CIA or FBI screw-up than we are from a terrorist whether home grown or imported. On balance, the US IC cannot be trusted with matches; we should not let them play with fire.”

But a seasoned CIA CT agent HSToday.us frequently interviews on a not for attribution basis because he’s not cleared to speak on these matters, said “these are carefully orchestrated surveillance ops that require manpower and resources. It involves a delicate dance between us, the FBI if they’re engaged, DHS components like [Customs and Border Protection] and TSA, and others who need to know. They’re very sensitive ops and sometimes we have one of our own in place where needed to be brought into the loop to let the target board so as not to tip him off.”

The CT operative said “there’s a surveillance team that tracks the target to his departing airport boarding gate, there’s a surveillance team at the boarding gate, one on the aircraft, teams at the gates of any airports the aircraft may make stops at, a team at the target’s destination airport gate, and surveillance teams in vehicles outside the target’s destination airport ready to shadow him – he’s got eyes on him at all times.”

But Steele insisted that these operations can turn disastrous.

Perhaps.

Classified FBI reports made available to Homeland Security Today on FBI surveillance of suspected terrorists living and operating businesses in Arlington, Virginia – a virtual stone’s throw from the White House – nearly two decades ago disturbingly disclosed that the Bureau agents who’d been tracking one of the suspects from Virginia to Texas to Los Angeles lost their quarry soon after he arrived in LA. The report did not explain how the FBI surveillance team managed to lose their target, but it did stress the importance of the failure – and the danger – of having not been able to keep him in sight.

While that FBI debacle was decades before Islamist jihadists became a top priority for the Intelligence Community and CT surveillance and intelligence operations were refined for this purpose “post-9/11,” Steele nevertheless believes mistakes can and are too easy to be made, and thus the risk of losing a terrorist who has been allowed into the country who may be on a mission to carry out an attack is “just too high of a risk to take.”

Steele and other IC CT veterans pointed to recent FBI reticence that resulted in suspected – and even known – terrorists not being put on terrorist watch lists. This problem was outlined in a scathing Department of Justice Inspector General report last May of its audit of the FBI’s terrorist watch list nomination practices.

The IG probe found that the FBI had frequently failed to put suspected terrorists’ names on the terrorist watch list in a timely manner – and sometimes not at all. In several instances, individuals whose names matched those of suspected terrorists who were under active investigation were able to enter the country.

“We believe that the FBI’s failure to consistently nominate subjects of international and domestic terrorism investigations to the terrorist watch list could pose a risk to national security,” the IG audit determined.

The Terrorist Screening Center, which began operations in December 2003 and is managed by the FBI, was established to serve as the government’s consolidation point for information about known or suspected international and domestic terrorists.

“Our audit found that initial watch list nominations created by FBI field offices often contained inaccuracies or were incomplete, leading to delays in the inclusion of known or suspected terrorists on the watch list,” the IG report stated. “In addition, the audit determined that the FBI did not consistently update or remove watch list records when appropriate. Finally, the audit determined that FBI field offices had, at times, bypassed some of the FBI’s quality control mechanisms by excluding FBI headquarters and submitting watch list nominations directly to the NCTC.

Continuing, the IG “found that the FBI failed to nominate many subjects in the terrorism investigations that we sampled, did not nominate many others in a timely fashion, and did not update or remove watch list records as required. Specifically, in 32 of the 216 (15 percent) terrorism investigations we reviewed, 35 subjects of these investigations were not nominated to the consolidated terrorist watch list, contrary to FBI policy.”

Continuing, the IG report stated that “we also found that 78 percent of the initial watch list nominations we reviewed were not processed in established FBI timeframes. Additionally, in 67 percent of the cases that we reviewed in which a watch list record modification was necessary, we determined that the FBI case agent primarily assigned to the case failed to modify the watch list record when new identifying information was obtained during the course of the investigation, as required by FBI policy. Further, in eight percent of the closed cases we reviewed, we found that the FBI failed to remove subjects from the watch list as required by FBI policy. Finally, in 72 percent of the closed cases reviewed, the FBI failed to remove the subject in a timely manner.”

“Because the consolidated terrorist watch list is used by government frontline screening personnel to determine how to respond when a known or suspected terrorist requests entry into the United States, the failure to place appropriate individuals on the watch list, or the failure to place them on the watch list in a timely manner, increases the risk that these individuals are able to enter and move freely about the country,” the IG determined. “In fact, we found that several persons with names matching the subjects who were not watchlisted or who were untimely watchlisted attempted to cross US borders during the period the names were not watchlisted by the FBI.”

The IG reported that FBI agents gave a variety of reasons for why they did not put the names of terrorist suspects on the watch list. Some said they didn’t know enough about the individual, "although our review of the case files suggested otherwise," the IG stated, adding that other FBI officials blamed their inexperience in counterterrorism, or lack of training on how to watchlist terrorist suspects.

And "one case agent said that he simply forgot to do the paperwork.”

The FBI assured the IG that its recommendations for resolving the myriad problems that the IG had uncovered – especially Agents’ inexperience in counterterrorism investigations and training – had largely been resolved.

But FBI Washington, DC Joint Terrorism Task Force analysts missed recognizing the Bureau’s own “indicators” of Muslim radicalization [which had been issued to law enforcement agencies in 2006 in the form of an "intelligence advisory"] when analyzing Hasan’s communications with Yemeni Al Qaeda franchise leader Anwar Al Awlaki.

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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