Border Watchlisting A Decade after 9/11 ~ …

…Today, the combined domestic/foreign “Terrorist Watchlist,” listing individuals where there exists sufficient “reasonable suspicion” of terrorist activity, is almost entirely made up of foreign-born terrorists, with Americans or legal permanent residents constituting only two percent of the names. Attempts to enter the U.S. by foreign terrorists can best be stopped by knowing who they are ahead of time through the hard, tedious process of watchlisting, and making those watchlists available to the right frontline officers in real time.

Janice Kephart, National Security Director at the Center for Immigration Studies and former 9/11 Commission border counsel, takes a look at watchlisting since 9/11 and criticisms of its shortcomings in the wake of the 2009 attempted Christmas Day bombing. Her report, Border Watchlisting a Decade after 9/11, is available at and presents a historical perspective on 9/11 Commission watchlist recommendations. The report concludes that the hardest work of implementation is complete, and offers recommendations to curtail “legitimate” terrorist travel (i.e., by those who seek legal entry by abusing vulnerabilities that remain in our border and aviation systems). These recommendations include:

“Cloud”, encryption, and storage technologies that solve the inability to gain information access across systems and databases, while also assuring both security and privacy. Piloting this technology should be prioritized.

Biometrics, including digitized facial images and fingerprints, need to be fully incorporated into watchlisting to reduce misidentification of legitimate travelers and terrorists.

DHS must create comprehensive travel and immigration histories for foreigners that cut across agencies and are easily accessible to the entire intelligence community. This 9/11 Commission recommendation is law, but Congress has not conducted oversight to assure its implementation.

Law enforcement data obtained from abroad by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Visa Security Units conducting terrorist investigations of visa applicants is extremely useful; Congress needs to prioritize the VSU expansion, and give DHS visa revocation authority.

The U.S. must do what it can to keep European Union agreements in place pertaining to Passenger Name Records; these records are absolutely essential to assuring accuracy of matching watchlist information to relevant aviation travelers.

All visa holders and visa waiver participants should have their information vetted at least every two years, and every time they seek to travel to the U.S. Right now, visa waiver travelers are subject to higher security thresholds than many visa holders from countries not friendly to the U.S. Applying a standardized approach avoids profiling, establishes security away from our borders, and enables real-time vetting where derogatory information develops after visa issuance.

The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent research institute that examines the impact of immigration on the United States.

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