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U.S. watch list has 'taken on life of its own,' FBI says

Versions of watch list distributed to private sector

From Kelli Arena

Versions of watch list distributed to private sector

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- FBI officials said Tuesday they have "lost control" of an agency-created watch list of people wanted for questioning after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Additionally, agency officials acknowledged that the list, which has gone through several manifestations, has "taken on a life of its own" and has shown up on several Web sites and contains names of people who have been cleared of any possible connection to last year's attacks.

The FBI said the list was not a list of suspects, but people whom agents wanted to talk to.

A law enforcement official compared it to the weekly terror bulletins sent out to state and local law enforcement partners. "Once that leaves headquarters, we have no control," the official said.

The admission came as FBI officials acknowledged Tuesday that in the months after the September 11 attacks the agency distributed several versions of the watch list that contained names of people possibly associated with terrorism both to law enforcement agencies and some businesses.

Speaking Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, Attorney General John Ashcroft supported the list as a way to fight terrorism.

"We need to find ways to share as much information with individuals as is possible to make every American, whether they are in an industry or business or in law enforcement or in their families, capable of enhancing their security by being aware and alert," Ashcroft said.

"So it's with that in mind that we will guide our approach to information sharing to make it possible for us all to be a part of the team which defeats terror."

Before the attacks, the list was made up of known terrorists and only tightly distributed to the intelligence community. After the attacks, the list was expanded to include people who weren't suspects but were sought for interviews or under suspicion by authorities, and its distribution was expanded.

After the attacks, CNN and other media obtained several copies of the list, which the FBI stopped updating more than a year ago.

The FBI disclosed details about the expanded list after a story was published about the list in the Wall Street Journal.

The first private companies to receive the expanded list were car rental companies. One law enforcement official said the break in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case came when one of the suspects came back for a deposit on his rental truck.

The list was given to FBI field offices, and officials then used their discretion in distributing the list.

The FBI said it is aware that some companies have used the list in lieu of background checks, but the agency said it has no control over company decisions.

One industry trade group official suggested it made "good economic sense" to use the list instead of running individual checks on all employees. He also suggested it would cover liability issues.

At FBI headquarters, officials said they do not know of any specific cases of someone trying to be taken off the list and suggested individuals would have dealt with their local FBI field office.

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