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Goal of unified terrorist watch list still elusive

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The Terrorist Screening Center, the FBI-led organization responsible for creating a single, unified terrorist “watch list,” hasn’t gathered all the data needed to complete the project, the center’s director admitted Thursday during a congressional hearing examining the list's progress.

“There is a lot of information out there within our federal government,” said TSC Director Donna Bucella.  “We endeavor — and this is a work in progress — to get all the names from all the different government agencies.”

The TSC opened its doors Dec. 1. In addition to being the agency responsible for creating the unified watch list, the center also acts as an information go-between for local and state law enforcement officers and the federal government, Bucella said. 

There are currently a dozen official terrorist watch lists maintained by nine federal agencies, and not all employees of each agency currently have access to all those watch lists.  In the aftermath of 9/11 it was discovered that at least two of the 9/11 terrorists could have been stopped from boarding their airplanes had the government’s various watch lists been unified.

Shortly after 9/11 Congress mandated that such a unified watch list be created; however, the project has languished for nearly three years as the agency responsible for its creation has changed at least four times.

The inability of the TSC to even get all the names from various government sources angered Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the ranking minority member on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, who noted that a big problem is that the various intelligence agencies within the Department of Defense haven't provided all the information they are known to have. 

“I’m disturbed,” Turner told Bucella Thursday. “We are two and a half years after 9/11, and none of these programs that we’re spending billions on — U.S. Visit, CAPPS II — none of them are going to work unless there is a unified, integrated database comprising all of the agencies that maintain this data. We’ll never be able to stop issuing visas to the wrong people unless we have this done right,” Turner said.  “We’re piecing this thing together with bailing wire,” he said.
“It’s not a problem with the Department of Defense,” Bucella said. “It’s trying to figure out all the information that the different agencies have.  We’re just trying to make sure we have all the information,” she said.  “We’re endeavoring to find out what other information is out there.  This is a complex problem.”

Indirect access
In defense of her department, Bucella noted that there is, indeed, a database in use that contains about 120,000 names, with more being added all the time.  That database is online and being used, Bucella said, noting that the TSC receives about 210 calls from state and local police each week. 

“Close to half of those calls are positive identification of known or suspected terrorists that were encountered within, at or outside of our borders,” Bucella said.

But the system is extremely inefficient, operating like a kind of verbal bucket brigade.  Typically, a local cop interacts with the TSC in the following manner. A person is stopped for a traffic violation, and that person’s name comes up on a national FBI database the cop has access to in the squad car.  On that entry in the FBI database there also is a notice to contact the TSC for further instructions.  The cop then must call his dispatcher, who then calls the TSC for the cop.  The TSC person then relays a message back through the dispatcher to the cop.  This kind of back-and-forth interaction can take place several times as the TSC analyst — who never directly talks to the street officer — tries to determine the next steps that the cop should take for the known or suspected terrorist. 

“Sometimes it [the interaction with the cop] is just an information-gathering session,” Bucella said. And sometimes there could be a determination to arrest or simply detain the person, Bucella said.   The cop never will get to know why all the information was needed, Bucella said.  “This is classified information coming directly from another agency's case files,” she said. 

Indeed, when the terrorist watch list eventually becomes a single, unified list — scheduled now for December — it will never contain detailed information but will simply be used as a terrorist identifier.

“Our database will only have the name and [identifying information] in there,” Bucella said.  “All of the other derogatory information, as to why a person has been identified as a terrorist or suspected terrorist, will not be in our database, that is not what we were created to do," Bucella said.  "We are only to facilitate an identity match."