The government's effort to consolidate federal agencies' 12 terrorist watch lists into one has all but failed, partly because the Department of Homeland Security has abandoned its responsibility to take the lead on the project, according to a report released yesterday by the department's internal watchdog.
The report by the department's inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin, said the government's botching of the assignment follows a disturbing pattern in the effort to protect the nation from terrorism.
"In the years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, just as in the past, the government has continued to implement solutions in an uncoordinated manner," the report said. "The manner through which the watch list consolidation has unfolded has not helped the nation break from its pattern."
President Bush, Congress and many terrorism experts have for years considered the integration of the watch lists a crucial priority in the effort to identify terrorists as they try to enter the country, board airplanes and open bank accounts, and when they are pulled over for traffic stops.
The inspector general was blunt in accusing his own department of refusing to take responsibility for the job of combining the 12 watch lists, an assignment that he said belonged to the department under the law that established it two years ago.
"DHS has not fulfilled its leadership responsibility," Ervin wrote in the report. " 'Connecting the dots' and ensuring better communications (among agencies) . . . is a large part of why DHS was created. If DHS . . . does not assume this interagency coordination responsibility, the question remains, who will?"
Homeland Security officials reject the assertion, which has also been made for years by members of Congress, that the department has been too passive in staking out its congressionally mandated role to take the lead in a number of intelligence analysis tasks such as merging watch lists.
Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse pointed out that last year President Bush gave the FBI and the Justice Department, not the Department of Homeland Security, the job of establishing and running the Terrorist Screening Center, to blend the various watch lists.
"We disagree with the report's premise that says DHS has the lead in the government for consolidating watch lists," Roehrkasse said. "The department is playing a strong partnership role with the FBI to consolidate watch lists."
Juliette Kayyem, executive director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, pinned responsibility for the failure to combine watch lists on the Bush White House, saying it undercut Homeland Security's ability to play the central role in counterterrorism intelligence that Congress intended.
"This is an administration that didn't want a homeland security department, and has insured it's as dysfunctional as this report suggests," she said. "[Homeland Security Secretary] Tom Ridge has to play the weak hand he's been dealt."
The 10-month-old Terrorist Screening Center handles requests round the clock from employees of numerous agencies, including immigration officers at U.S. airports, State Department consular officers who issue visas at overseas embassies and local law enforcement officers.
The combined database is designed to include names compiled by nine agencies, including the CIA, the FBI, various components of Homeland Security and the State Department, which has a huge database called Tipoff.
The screening center has enjoyed modest success in combining the various watch lists, the report said, by beginning the arduous job of filtering various lists so they can be shared with other agencies that have access to the screening center's 100,000-name database.
But Ervin said many problems have cropped up. The screening center has had trouble hiring enough analysts with high security clearances. As of a few months ago it had only about half its assigned complement of 160 staff members, he said.
The databases are vastly different. The Justice Department's National Crime Information Center can handle names of up to 30 characters, a stumbling block in integrating it with other lists. It uses relatively unsophisticated software that allows street cops to access it immediately, while the State Department's lists, for example, allow for more laborious searches of names using different spellings in Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic.