Terrorist Watchlist Screening:

FBI Has Enhanced Its Use of Information from Firearm and Explosives Background Checks to Support Counterterrorism Efforts

GAO-10-703T: Published: May 5, 2010. Publicly Released: May 5, 2010.

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Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law. However, for homeland security and other purposes, the FBI is notified when a firearm or explosives background check involves an individual on the terrorist watchlist. This statement addresses (1) how many checks have resulted in matches with the terrorist watchlist, (2) how the FBI uses information from these checks for counterterrorism purposes, and (3) pending legislation that would give the Attorney General authority to deny certain checks. GAO's testimony is based on products issued in January 2005 and May 2009 and selected updates in March and April 2010. For these updates, GAO reviewed policies and other documentation and interviewed officials at FBI components involved with terrorism-related background checks.

From February 2004 through February 2010, FBI data show that individuals on the terrorist watchlist were involved in firearm or explosives background checks 1,225 times; 1,116 (about 91 percent) of these transactions were allowed to proceed because no prohibiting information was found--such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, or other disqualifying factors--and 109 of the transactions were denied. In response to a recommendation in GAO's January 2005 report, the FBI began processing all background checks involving the terrorist watchlist in July 2005--including those generated via state operations--to ensure consistency in handling and ensure that relevant FBI components and field agents are contacted during the resolution of the checks so they can search for prohibiting information. Based on another recommendation in GAO's 2005 report, the FBI has taken actions to collect and analyze information from these background checks for counterterrorism purposes. For example, in April 2005, the FBI issued guidance to its field offices on the availability and use of information collected as a result of firearm and explosives background checks involving the terrorist watchlist. The guidance discusses the process for FBI field offices to work with FBI personnel who conduct the checks and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to obtain information about the checks, such as the purchaser's residence address and the make, model, and serial number of any firearm purchased. The guidance states that any information that FBI field offices obtain related to these background checks can be shared with other counterterrorism and law enforcement agencies. The FBI is also preparing monthly reports on these checks that are disseminated throughout the FBI to support counterterrorism efforts. In April 2007, the Department of Justice proposed legislative language to Congress that would provide the Attorney General with discretionary authority to deny the transfer of firearms or explosives to known or suspected "dangerous terrorists." At the time of GAO's May 2009 report, neither the department's proposed legislative language nor related proposed legislation included provisions for the development of guidelines further delineating the circumstances under which the Attorney General could exercise this authority. GAO suggested that Congress consider including a provision in any relevant legislation that would require the Attorney General to establish such guidelines; and this provision was included in a subsequent legislative proposal. If Congress gives the Attorney General authority to deny firearms or explosives based on terrorist watchlist concerns, guidelines for making such denials would help to provide accountability for ensuring that the expected results of the background checks are being achieved. Guidelines would also help ensure that the watchlist is used in a manner that safeguards legal rights, including freedoms, civil liberties, and information privacy guaranteed by federal law and that its use is consistent with other screening processes. For example, criteria have been developed for determining when an individual should be denied the boarding of an aircraft.

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