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Terrorist watch list: One tip now enough to put name in database, officials say

A Nigerian man, claiming to be linked to al-Qaeda, allegedly tried to set off an incendiary device aboard a trans-Atlantic airplane on Christmas Day as it descended toward Detroit's airport. The White House called it an attempted act of terrorism.

The official recounted an incident two years ago in which a state trooper pulled over a truck driver for a traffic violation.

The driver appeared nervous, was traveling to several states, had three cellphones and plenty of food in his truck, and made several calls during the stop. The trooper was able to confirm through a call to the Terrorist Screening Center that the man was on the watch list. It turned out, the official said, that an FBI case agent had an open al-Qaeda-related investigation on the truck driver.

The names on the watch list are culled from a much larger catch-all database that is housed at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean and that includes a huge variety of terrorism-related intelligence.

TIDE troubles

From its inception in 2005, the database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, was plagued by technical difficulties.

In 2008, the counterterrorism center undertook a multimillion-dollar upgrade to streamline and more fully automate the database so that only one record exists per person, no matter how many aliases that person might have.

Those improvements should reduce errors and free up analysts for more pressing tasks, said Vicki Jo McBee, the counterterrorism center's chief information officer.

The new system will also ease the sharing of fingerprints and iris and facial images of people on the watch list among screening agencies, McBee said. And rather than sending data once a night to the Terrorist Screening Center's watch list, which can take hours, the new system should be able to update the list almost instantly as names are entered, McBee said.

Deployment has not been smooth. TIDE 2, as it is called, failed readiness tests and missed a December launch deadline. But now, McBee said, all tests have been passed and the system will be launched in January.

Meanwhile, the National Counterterrorism Center has developed a 70-person pursuit group to investigate "sleeper" terrorism threats, with four teams examining the regional hotbeds in Africa; in Yemen and the Arabian Gulf; in Pakistan and Europe; and in the United States. A fifth picks up the rest of the world.

"We try to look at the unknowns, the terrorists lurking in the dark that you don't know about, like the Abdulmutallabs of the world," said an official familiar with the group.

The teams, which include analysts from the CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, might take a tip about a suspect flying to the United States on a certain route, then study travel records to see whether they can find travelers who match the pattern.

They also mine Internet sites for clues, in "a careful, legal way," the official said. For instance, though analysts had not identified Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistan-born Connecticut man, before his May attempt to blow up a car in Times Square, a pursuit team delineated his network of associates in the United States in part by gleaning details from social networking sites, she said.

Much of the pursuit group's work is filtering out irrelevant information.

"We get a huge kick out of" handing a lead to the FBI, the official said. "But . . . the ruling-out is almost as important as the actual finding of leads."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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