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25 September 2003

FBI, State Dept. Strengthen Cooperative Efforts in Terrorist Screening

Information sharing improved to prevent visa issuance to terrorists

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have made strides to improve information-sharing to prevent would-be terrorists from obtaining entrance to the United States, according to testimony presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee September 23.

FBI Executive Assistant Director for Counterrorism Larry A. Mefford described an "ongoing process to improve our ability to identify suspected terrorists and to stop them before they can do us harm."

The efforts to better coordinate information-sharing about individuals who could be linked to terrorism comes in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Investigations after the deadly attacks revealed that several of the perpetrators had been issued visas by the State Department. Lawmakers and government agencies determined that more stringent screening procedures were required to identify visa applicants who might be attempting to enter the United States with criminal intentions.

Mefford described the newly developed system by which the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs and the FBI share information on a daily basis to attempt to match the names of visa applicants against databases containing the names of people ineligible to receive visas, including known or suspected terrorists.

"Less than 1 percent of the name matches result in derogatory information being develop about that subject," Mefford said.

Following is the text of the testimony as prepared for delivery:

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Testimony of Larry A. Mefford,

Executive Assistant Director
Counterterrorism/Counterintelligence Division
Federal Bureau of Investigation

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee
Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to testify regarding information sharing and the ongoing cooperation between the FBI and the State Department as it relates to accessing and using information from the FBI to make visa determinations a part of our antiterrorism and border protection efforts.

Improvements with information sharing and watch lists

The collection of information/intelligence has always been a core function of the FBI's investigative mission, however the sharing of information was case oriented rather than an enterprise-wide activity. With the advent of new legislation, revised Attorney General Guidelines, and certain court decisions, new opportunities have given rise to strengthen and expand the FBI's intelligence capabilities, which in turn allow the FBI to share this data with our intelligence and law enforcement partners. Prior to the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act, statutory restrictions limited the type of information the FBI was allowed to share with our Intelligence Community partners. Today, however, the FBI can clearly share much more information than ever before, which has resulted in several information initiatives. The mere collection and sharing of vast amounts of information, without any thought as to the usefulness of the information, is counterproductive as it wastes collection resources and clouds the picture for the end user.

Today there are 84 FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) spread throughout the United States, with coverage in each one of your districts. The JTTFs are made up of over 25 different Federal agencies and hundreds of state and local law enforcement agencies. Every JTTF Officer, Agent, and Analyst has a Top Secret clearance which allows those members unfiltered access to all of the FBI's information. In addition to the local JTTFs spread across the country, the National Joint Terrorism Task Force is located in the Strategic Information and Operations Center at FBI Headquarters, where 35 different Federal agencies, including the Department of State, with access to their respective databases, are represented. To further facilitate information sharing, the FBI has personnel stationed at the State Department, and the State Department has assigned personnel to the FBI's Counterterrorism Division.

Since September 11, 2001, Director Mueller has directed field offices of the FBI to place the subjects of open terrorism related investigations into the FBI's Terrorism Watch List which is housed within the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC), in the Violent Gangs and Terrorist Organization File (VGTOF). The Terrorism Watch List has been the Counterterrorism Division's single, integrated listing of individuals of an investigative interest to the FBI, be that the lone terrorist subject or a specific terrorist group. It was designed to assist both the intelligence and law enforcement communities in their investigations of terrorist groups and/or individuals. The Terrorism Watch List (VGTOF) is in the process of being consolidated into a single data base managed by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) and the recently announced Terrorist Screening Center (TSC).

Today, the Terrorist Watch & Warning Unit of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division works with the State Department on a daily basis to share information and assist in resolving name check issues arising from Visa applications. As an example, the State Department's Office of Consular Affairs routinely sends to the FBI possible VGTOF name check matches for the review of the Terrorist Watch & Warning Unit. These reviews are a result of the sharing of pertinent NCIC and VGTOF data with the State Department's Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS). The CLASS system is designed to detect those who may be ineligible to receive visas, including known or suspected terrorists as they apply for visas overseas, or as they attempt to pass through U.S., Canadian, or Australian border entry points. Currently the FBI is providing an "extract" of identifying information for non-U.S. persons from the NCIC subset of "Wanted Persons" and from the Interstate Identification Index (III). The FBI is identifying records as non-U.S. persons through their place of birth (POB) information. This information is currently being provided on a monthly basis, on a disk, until an automatic electronic transfer of information can be engineered as part of the TSC.

Following interagency discussions that took place after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of State (DOS) implemented the Visa Condor Program to conduct additional checks for applications determined to be "high risk." The program commenced in January of 2002; the DOS forwards the "short" visa application form to the FBI for a name check. The searches seek all instances of the individual's name and approximate date of birth, whether the individual is the subject of an investigation, or merely mentioned as an associate or witness. The names are searched in a multitude of combinations, switching the order of the first, middle, and last names. The names are also searched using different phonetic spelling variations of the name, which is important considering that many names in our indices have been translated from a language other than English. If there is a name match with an FBI record, it is designated as a "hit", meaning that the system has identified a potential match with the name being checked, which will then require additional research regarding specifics of that file to determine if any derogatory information exists. Less than 1% of the name matches result in derogatory information being developed about that subject. In these incidents, the matter is forwarded to the appropriate FBI division having investigative oversight. The FBI investigative division having such oversight prepares a written Security Advisory Opinion and forwards that to DOS. In reviewing these visa requests, the FBI has been successful in identifying individuals attempting to enter the United States who are of serious concern to the FBI.

The FBI has written procedures in place for notifying the appropriate personnel to take specific action on all State Department cables concerning visa matters, to include Security Advisory Opinions (SAO) and visa revocations. These procedures include requiring that all cables sent to the FBI related to visa issues be uploaded into the FBI's Electronic Case File, allowing for full text retrieval.

Due to an initial Condor backlog developed, the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force (FTTTF) provided support to help to clear the backlog of visa name check requests. The backlog was eliminated in June 2003. The FBI's Records Management Division (RMD), which manages the National Name Check Unit, accepted central control responsibility for the Visa Condor Program from FTTTF on December 12, 2002. Now in a supporting role, the FTTTF will augment, as requested, the FBI's overall Visa Condor review process through its unique ability to exploit public and proprietary data sources to find the electronic footprint of known and suspected terrorists. The RMD tracks the records through the analysis process in Counterterrorism Division (CTD) and presents completed packages to the Department of State.

The FBI has responded to over 97,600 Visa Condor name check requests submitted by the State Department since June of 2002. There are 119 full time employees working in the Records Management Division working for the National Name Check Unit.

Inter-agency information sharing

Regarding the existing restrictions on inter-agency information sharing, including the Privacy Act, there are no statutory, regulatory, or any other legal restrictions on the sharing of unclassified information with other United States governmental agencies. Pursuant to the USA PATRIOT Act, the FBI can now share Grand Jury and Title III information in International Terrorism related cases with other United States governmental agencies, with the coordination of the local United States Attorney's Office having jurisdiction on the matter being investigated.

Creation of a central repository

The recently announced Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) will consolidate all existing terrorist watch lists currently being used by the United States Government into a single function to provide accurate information to terrorist screeners around the country on a 24/7, real-time basis. This function will consolidate into one central location information that law enforcement, the Intelligence Community, and the State Department already possess. Creation of the TSC does not create new law enforcement powers, and it will have no independent authority to conduct intelligence collection or other operations.

This integration of existing watch list functions of a variety of agencies will enhance the coordination, consistency and accuracy of on-going efforts by creating a mechanism for one-stop shopping to be used by local, state, and federal officers, as well as others who may have a need to receive this information. Creation of the TSC is the latest step in the ongoing process to improve our ability to identify suspected terrorists and to stop them before they can do us harm. It brings together such data- bases as the Department of State's TIPOFF system used to vett visa applicants overseas, the Department of Homeland Security's transportation security lists, and the FBI's Violent Gang and Terrorist Offender's File in NCIC.

The TSC will be responsible for developing appropriate policies and criteria to ensure the accuracy of information in the database and to ensure that the legal safeguards are in place to protect privacy rights and personal freedoms, consistent with our Constitution and legal framework. The TSC will also be responsible for quality control issues, such as ensuring the appropriateness of entering a particular name when warranted. It will consolidate overall responsibility for day-to-day operation of the nation's various terrorist watch lists into a single interagency Center for the purpose of continuing efforts to protect the nation. As called for by the 9/11 Congressional Joint Inquiry, this streamlined approach is designed not only to enhance operational efficiencies but also to clearly designate responsibility for the system - all with the goal of making the country safer.

Conclusion

All of these efforts reflect the FBI's recognition of the importance of an integrated suspected terrorist database, accessible to all of our partners in the criminal and intelligence communities. I want to emphasize to you, this issue has the full attention of Director Mueller and the FBI. The FBI appreciates the interest of the Committee in this matter. I thank you for the invitation to speak today and look forward to working with you in the future. I am prepared to answer any questions the Committee may have.

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