US streamline watch list database to thwart terror

Thursday, December 30, 2010

WASHINGTON - Now a single tip about a terror link will be enough for inclusion in the watch list for US sleuths who have also evolved a quicker system to share the database of potential terrorists among screening agencies.

The master watch list of individuals with suspected links to terrorism is used to screen people seeking to obtain a visa, cross a US border, or board a plane in or destined for the US.

Officials say they have made it easier to add individuals’ names to the watch list and improved the government’s ability to thwart terrorist attacks, the Washington Post reported.

Timothy Healy, director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the master list, said the new guidelines balance the protection of Americans from terrorist threats with the preservation of civil liberties.

He said the watch list today is “more accurate, more agile”, providing valuable intelligence to a growing number of partners that include state and local police and foreign governments.

Another senior counter-terrorism official told the Post that officials have now “effectively in a broad stroke lowered the bar for inclusion”.

The measure comes a year after a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The US government faced criticism for its failure to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the watch list despite his father warning US officials of Abdulmutallab’s radicalisation in Yemen.

Since then, senior counter-terrorism officials say they have altered their criteria so that a single-source tip, as long as it is deemed credible, can lead to a name being placed on the watch list, the daily said.

But civil liberties groups argued that the government’s new criteria has made it even more likely that individuals who pose no threat will be swept up in the nation’s security apparatus, leading to potential violations of their privacy and making it difficult for them to travel.

However, officials insist they have been vigilant about keeping law-abiding people off the master list. The new criteria have led to only modest growth in the list, which stands at 440,000 people, about 5 percent more than last year. A vast majority are non-US citizens.

“Despite the challenges we face, we have made significant improvements,” Michael E. Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in a speech this month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“And the result of that is, in my view, that the threat of that most severe, most complicated attack is significantly lower today than it was in 2001.”

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

The database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), underwent a multimillion-dollar upgrade to streamline and automate the data so that only one record exists per person, no matter how many aliases that person might have.

Vicki Jo McBee, the counter-terrorism centre’s chief information officer, said the new system will also ease the sharing of fingerprints and iris and facial images of people on the watch list among screening agencies.

Instead of 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, adding that the system is ready to be launched in January.

The National Counterterrorism Center has also 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 US. A fifth picks up the rest of the world.

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 US on a certain route, then study travel records to see whether they can find travellers who match the pattern.

They also mine websites for clues, in “a careful, legal way”, the official said.

Filed under: Terrorism

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