Washington The FBI failed to put as many as 20 suspected terrorists on watch lists tailored to alert border agents and immigration officials because of a technology glitch, a Justice Department audit concluded Thursday.
It was not immediately clear whether any of the suspects entered the United States as a result of the security lapse.
Responding, the director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center acknowledged the gap, but said it soon will be fixed.
The audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine gave the FBI mixed reviews for its efforts over the last two years to clean up its terror watch list database. The database contains more than 700,000 records about suspected terrorists and was created after the 9/11 Commission called for a single agency to consolidate and manage 12 government watch lists that existed before the 2001 terror attacks.
Since Fine's last audit, in 2005, the FBI has worked to fix several problems, including trying to make sure the watch list is accurate and creating an office to deal with complaints from people wrongly identified as terrorists or suspects.
Still, problems persist, the audit found. It faulted two technology systems that feed into and from the master watch list that are not identical - as they should be - because they contain differing records. As a result, alerts weren't raised about some suspected terrorists, the audit found.
"Specifically, we identified 20 watch list records on suspected or known terrorists that were not made available to the front line screening agents such as border patrol officers, visa application reviewers or local police officers for use during watch list screening encounters - such as during border crossings, visa processing or routine traffic stops," the report concluded.
Parts of the audit were not released publicly, making it impossible to know whether any of the people on the watch list entered the country.
Terrorist Screening Center Director Leonard Boyle said the technology glitch resulted in data not being included on alert lists tailor-made for some agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an arm of the Homeland Security Department. But he said the entire watch list is available to officials - including most police and other law enforcement agencies - that rely on National Crime Information Center data to do background checks.
"For technical reasons, about 20 identities or records did not get distributed as completely as they should have," Boyle said in an interview. The CBP can access the crime center data, Boyle said, but the FBI did not send the watch list data directly to CBP systems "as they should have been."
The two systems will be consolidated within six months, Boyle said.