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Terror Database Has Quadrupled In Four Years

The intelligence community's system of compiling and distributing names for watch lists has plenty of critics, but Russ Travers of the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean says:
The intelligence community's system of compiling and distributing names for watch lists has plenty of critics, but Russ Travers of the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean says: "What's the alternative?" (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

The 80 TIDE analysts get "thousands of messages a day," Travers said, much of the data "fragmentary," "inconsistent" and "sometimes just flat-out wrong." Often the analysts go back to the intelligence agencies for details. "Sometimes you'll get sort of corroborating information," he said, "but many times you're not going to get much. What we use here, rightly or wrongly, is a reasonable-suspicion standard."

Each TIDE listee is given a number, and statistics are kept on nationality and ethnic and religious groups. Some files include aliases and sightings, and others are just a full or partial name, perhaps with a sketchy biography. Sunni and Shiite Muslims are the fastest-growing categories in a database whose entries include Saudi financiers and Colombian revolutionaries. U.S. citizens -- who Travers said make up less than 5 percent of listings -- are included if an "international terrorism nexus" is established. A similar exception for the administration's warrantless wiretap program came under court challenge from privacy and civil rights advocates.

Information Sharing

Every night at 10, TIDE dumps an unclassified version of that day's harvest -- names, dates of birth, countries of origin and passport information -- into a database belonging to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center. TIDE's most sensitive information is not included. The FBI adds data about U.S. suspects with no international ties for a combined daily total of 1,000 to 1,500 new names.

Between 5 and 6 a.m., a shift of 24 analysts drawn from the agencies that use watch lists begins a new winnowing process at the center's Crystal City office. The analysts have access to case files at TIDE and the original intelligence sources, said the center's acting director, Rick Kopel.

Decisions on what to add to the Terrorist Screening Center master list are made by midafternoon. The bar is higher than TIDE's; total listings were about 235,000 names as of last fall, according to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. The bar is then raised again as agencies decide which names to put on their own watch lists: the Transportation Security Administration's "no-fly" and "selectee" lists for airlines; Consular Lookout and Support System at the State Department; the Interagency Border and Inspection System at the Department of Homeland Security; and the Justice Department's National Crime Information Center. The criteria each agency use are classified, Kopel said.

Some information may raise a red flag for one agency but not another. "There's a big difference between CLASS and no-fly," Kopel said, referring to State's consular list. "About the only criteria CLASS has is that you're not a U.S. person. . . . Say 'a Mohammed from Syria.' That's useless for me to watch-list here in the United States. But if I'm in Damascus processing visas . . . that might be enough for someone to . . . put a hold on the visa process."

All of the more than 30,000 individuals on the TSA's no-fly list are prohibited from entering an aircraft in the United States. People whose names appear on the longer selectee list -- those the government believes merit watching but does not bar from travel -- are supposed to be subjected to more intense scrutiny.

With little to go on beyond names, airlines find frequent matches. The screening center agent on call will check the file for markers such as sex, age and prior "encounters" with the list. The agent might ask the airlines about the passenger's eye color, height or defining marks, Kopel said. "We'll say, 'Does he have any rings on his left hand?' and they'll say, 'Uh, he doesn't have a left hand.' Okay. We know that [the listed person] lost his left hand making a bomb."

If the answers indicate a match, that "encounter" is fed back into the FBI screening center's files and ultimately to TIDE. Kopel said the agent never tells the airline whether the person trying to board is the suspect. The airlines decide whether to allow the customer to fly.

TSA receives thousands of complaints each year, such as this one released to the Electronic Privacy Information Center in 2004 under the Freedom of Information Act: "Apparently, my name is on some watch list because everytime I fly, I get delayed while the airline personnel call what they say is TSA," wrote a passenger whose name was blacked out. Noting that he was a high-level federal worker, he asked what he could do to remove his name from the list.

The answer, Kopel said, is little. A unit at the screening center responds to complaints, he said, but will not remove a name if it is shared by a terrorism suspect. Instead, people not on the list who share a name with someone listed can be issued letters instructing airline personnel to check with the TSA to verify their identity. The GAO reported that 31 names were removed in 2005.

A Process Under Fire

A recent review of the entire Terrorist Screening Center database was temporarily abandoned when it proved too much work even for the night crew, which generally handles less of a workload. But the no-fly and selectee lists are being scrubbed to emphasize "people we think are a danger to the plane, and not for some other reason they met the criteria," Kopel said.

A separate TSA system that would check every passenger name against the screening center's database has been shelved over concern that it could grow into a massive surveillance program. The Department of Homeland Security was rebuked by Congress in December for trying to develop a risk-assessment program to profile travelers entering and leaving the United States based on airline and financial data.

Kopel insisted that private information on Americans, such as credit-card records, never makes it into the screening center database and that "we rely 100 percent on government-owned information."

The center came in for ridicule last year when CBS's "60 Minutes" noted that 14 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were listed -- five years after their deaths. Kopel defended the listings, saying that "we know for a fact that these people will use names that they believe we are not going to list because they're out of circulation -- either because they're dead or incarcerated. . . . It's not willy-nilly. Every name on the list, there's a reason that it's on there."


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