25 march 2007
Terror Database Has Quadrupled In Four Years
By Karen DeYoung
Each day, thousands of pieces of intelligence information from around the world -- field reports, captured documents, news from foreign allies and sometimes idle gossip -- arrive in a computer-filled office in McLean, where analysts feed them into the nation's central list of terrorists and terrorism suspects.
Called TIDE, for Terrorist Identities Datamart
Environment, the list is a storehouse for data about individuals that the
intelligence community believes might harm the
But in addressing one problem, TIDE has spawned others. Ballooning from
fewer than 100,000 files in 2003 to about 435,000, the growing database
threatens to overwhelm the people who manage it. "The single biggest worry
that I have is long-term quality control," said Russ Travers, in charge of
TIDE at the
TIDE has also created concerns about secrecy, errors and privacy. The
list marks the first time foreigners and
The watch lists fed by TIDE, used to monitor everyone entering the
country or having even a casual encounter with federal, state and local law
enforcement, have a higher bar. But they have become a source of irritation -- and
potentially more serious consequences -- for many
In 2004 and 2005, misidentifications accounted for about half of the tens of thousands of times a traveler's name triggered a watch-list hit, the Government Accountability Office reported in September. Congressional committees have criticized the process, some charging that it collects too much information about Americans, others saying it is ineffective against terrorists. Civil rights and privacy groups have called for increased transparency.
"How many are on the lists, how are they compiled, how is the
information used, how do they verify it?" asked Lillie Coney, associate
director of the Washington-based
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said last year that his wife had been
delayed repeatedly while airlines queried whether Catherine Stevens was the
watch-listed Cat Stevens. The listing referred to the Britain-based pop singer
who converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf
Islam. The reason Islam is not allowed to fly to the
So is the reason Maher Arar, a Syrian-born
Canadian, remains on the State Department's consular watch list. Detained in
TIDE is a vacuum cleaner for both proven and unproven information, and its managers disclaim responsibility for how other agencies use the data. "What's the alternative?" Travers said. "I work under the assumption that we're never going to have perfect information -- fingerprints, DNA -- on 6 billion people across the planet. . . . If someone actually has a better idea, I'm all ears."
'Thousands of Messages'
The electronic journey a piece of terrorism data takes from an intelligence outpost to an airline counter is interrupted at several points for analysis and condensation.
President Bush ordered the intelligence community in 2003 to centralize
data on terrorism suspects, and
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
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
Between 5 and , a shift of 24 analysts drawn from the
agencies that use watch lists begins a new winnowing process at the center's
Decisions on what to add to the
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
All of the more than 30,000 individuals on the TSA's
no-fly list are prohibited from entering an aircraft in the
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
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
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."