The many federal “watch lists” of suspected terrorists are supposed to be merged into one megadatabase. The new database, and the multiagency Terrorist Screening Center created to run it, were to be operational by last Dec. 1.
U.S. News & World Report says the lights went on as scheduled at the new center, but the master list of terrorists is still a work in progress. It contains about 11,250 names culled from the State Department’s TIPOFF watch list and the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. That’s only about a fifth of the names that should be there, says Rep. Jim Turner, ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. Indeed, it will be months, some say years, before the TSC reaches its potential. But that may be too long. “This has to happen, or intelligence analysts will never see the big picture, and they have to,” says former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who led an investigation of domestic responses to terrorism. “There is nothing more fundamental.”
U.S. News says the timetable might have been unrealistic from the get-go. This kind of “groundbreaking” work cannot be rushed, says Liz Tobias, spokesperson for Rep. Chris Cox, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. An internal FBI memo a few days before the December 1 deadline explained that the TSC’s initial capabilities would be “limited.” An FBI official told Turner that the TSC was in a “test phase,” still working to get data from federal law enforcement agencies. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says lists are not yet integrated but are accessible from computers under one roof, rather than in various buildings all over town. This rate of progress is “inexcusable,” says Turner.
There is controversy over operational details. Officials must settle on protocols for sharing sensitive data. “You don’t necessarily want every local cop to have access to highly classified intelligence,” says a congressional aide. But “you need to have a robust source of information or else the database is useless.” Another challenge is sorting out credible information from unreliable dirt and eliminating poor transliterations of Arabic names that can lead to mistaken identities.
Now, TSC’s 30 employees are borrowing office space and computers from the FBI. The center doesn’t have its own budget and probably won’t until fiscal 2006. Participating agencies are chipping in to keep it going. Some TSC workers had to get office supplies in the public aisles of OfficeMax.