The government's ability to spot terror suspects before they enter the United States is severely hindered by poor communication among the agencies that compile information on suspects, congressional auditors say.

The General Accounting Office (search) report on Wednesday said nine federal agencies are maintaining 12 separate "watch lists" that include information on known or suspected terrorists and criminals. The lists are used at border crossings as well as by agencies that grant visas.

The agencies -- three are now part of the new Department of Homeland Security (search) -- have different policies on sharing their data. Two agencies had no policies at all, the report said.

The agencies use different computer programs to store the data, making it difficult to transfer information from one agency to another. Even when sharing occurs, agencies must sometimes overcome complex rules and other costly barriers, the report said.

The information on the lists also varies greatly. For example, all 12 lists contain the names and birth dates of suspects, but only nine contain criminal histories. Eight lists contain biometric data such as fingerprints, and three contain immigration data.

The GAO concluded that the federal government is not meeting data-sharing requirements set by President Bush and Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The report recommends that the Department of Homeland Security consolidate the lists and increase the amount of data shared among agencies and with state and local law enforcement.

"Our nation's success in achieving its homeland security mission depends in large part on its ability to get the right information to the right people at the right time," the report said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said Wednesday that coordination of resources will improve under the Department of Homeland Security. That department, formed earlier this year, combines agencies that were previously in the departments of Justice, Treasury and Transportation.

"We are much better protected than we have been, but there are ways for us to improve and the report will provide us a road map for continuous improvement in this respect," Ashcroft said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

In its response to the report, the State Department (search) agreed that some changes should be made, but argued against one massive database because it said agencies have very different needs. For example, it said, a law enforcement agency needs more information in order to arrest someone than another agency might need to issue or deny a visa.

"To imply, as the report does, that differences exist solely due to parochialism on the part of the agencies involved is misleading," the State Department said in a letter to the GAO.

The GAO conducted the report at the request of Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Carl Levin, D-Mich. Levin said the inability and unwillingness of federal agencies to share and coordinate information was the chief failing leading to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I am extremely troubled that, despite repeated assurances from administration officials, we have not made greater headway in the past 19 months toward consolidating these disparate watch lists into a unified system," Levin said Wednesday.