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updated 3/15/2004 2:27:18 PM ET 2004-03-15T19:27:18

An ambitious effort to create a central terror suspect database for use by all U.S. federal and local officials has been struggling for months because of challenges as mundane as merging Microsoft spreadsheets and as sensitive as protecting people’s privacy.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said in September that the Terrorist Screening Center — “one-stop shopping so that every federal terrorist screener is working off the same page” — would be operational by Dec. 1.

But in December, the FBI launched only a “test phase,” while government employees and contractors at the northern Virginia center finish merging the identifying information on all suspected or known terrorists into a single database.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said recently the goal now is to have the work done by midsummer.

Still, Texas Rep. Jim Turner, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, is skeptical and said the database’s completion is already overdue.

Long overdue
“The critical lynchpin of identifying terrorists has yet to be put in place in a functional way,” Turner said. “You need a place where local state and federal law-enforcement personnel can have access real time to a terrorist watch list. ... Two years is too long.”

At a Senate Government Affairs Committee hearing last month, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the panel’s senior Democrat, criticized the “labor-intensive and obviously risk-prone” work of checking airplane flight manifests against a dozen current terrorist watch lists, as was reportedly the case during the Christmas high alert.

“Right now, it’s still a very cumbersome and time-consuming process,” Ridge replied.

When completed, the database is supposed to allow any government official — from a Customs agent at an airport to a state trooper watching for speeders — to check the name of someone they have screened or stopped.

If the name is on the watchlist, the official can then call a phone number for further information.

The outcomes will vary. At a point of entry, the person in question could be turned away. At a traffic stop, the police officer may make a notation of where the person was.

For more serious situations, where the checked name matches that of a known terrorist, the official may detain the person and wait for a member of the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force to arrive.

Complex problems in sharing
For now, about a dozen databases from nine agencies are being massaged and merged. Officials are studying whether to use the State Department’s TIPOFF watchlist as the basic architecture.

FBI Director Robert Mueller has compared combining the information to lining up the colors on a Rubik’s Cube.

Some of the problems are quite mundane. One law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a tricky problem is sorting out what is duplicative and what criteria should be used to develop the list, given all the available information.

More complex problems arise out of the issue of sharing data.

The intelligence community, for instance, may be leery of providing all it knows about a particular person to the central database because U.S. investigators may want to let a suspected terrorist get on a flight, or go to a meeting, in order to track down others.

Officials decline to discuss such issues publicly. But one counter-terrorism official said privately that such issues are raised and addressed constantly.

Turner said he was told in briefings that the center needs an army of attorneys to decide what information can be released and to whom — and whether any action should be taken if a suspect person is stopped.

Critics fear blacklist
Meanwhile, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned that the list could amount to a government blacklist, making accuracy all the more important.

While he doesn’t oppose creating a database, Charlie Mitchell, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said he wants to see safeguards, including “some type of appeal procedure if you think you are on it by mistake, some sort of process to defend yourself.”

Late last month, the screening center’s director, Donna Bucella, told the president’s commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the center has a system to adjust incorrect or outdated information.

One inherently difficult problem, said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, a former general counsel for the CIA and National Security Agency, is that the methods used by intelligence and law enforcement — the main contributors to the database — are different. Intelligence tries to gather as much information as possible, while law enforcement assembles evidence fit for a prosecution.

As a result, intelligence information going into the database may not be “as pristine” as evidence — an issue that will have to be sorted out, Parker said.

But more broadly, she said, the United States must improve its understanding of foreign cultures to sort out names and identities, because confusing like names and irregular spellings is still a major problem.

For instance, “it is hard to decipher Chinese names. They all sound the same,” Parker said.

“Our systems aren’t ready,” she said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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