Terror Database Growth Raises Concerns
The database that acts as a terrorist watch list source for airlines, law enforcement, border posts and U.S. consulates has quadrupled in four years and is causing some headaches for those who handle it, reports The Washington Post.
TIDE, an acronym for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, is a storehouse for data about individuals that the intelligence community believes might harm the United States. It was created to close one of the key intelligence gaps revealed after Sept. 11th: the failure of federal agencies to share what they knew about al-Qaeda operatives.
Since 2003, the number of files in the database has risen from less than 100,000 to 435,000, and officials say the growth of the database is overwhelming the employees who manage it.
“The single biggest worry that I have is long-term quality control,” says Russ Travers, who is in charge of TIDE at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va. “Where am I going to be, where is my successor going to be, five years down the road?”
TIDE has also created concerns about secrecy, errors and privacy, The Washington Post reports.
The list marks the first time foreigners and U.S. citizens are combined in an intelligence database. Officials say the bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it.
At any stage, the process can lead to “horror stories” of mixed-up names and unconfirmed information, Travers says.
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 on Americans; others say it is ineffective against terrorists.
“How many are on the lists, how are they compiled, how is the information used, how do they verify it?” asks Lillie Coney, associate director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Such information is classified, and individuals barred from traveling are not told why.
TIDE is a thought to be a “vacuum cleaner” for both proven and unproven information, and its managers disclaim responsibility for how other agencies use the data, according to the article in the Post.
Eighty TIDE analysts get “thousands of messages a day,” Travers says. According to him, much of the data is “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,” Travers says, “but many times you’re not going to get much. What we use here, rightly or wrongly, is a reasonable-suspicion standard.”
TSA receives thousands of complaints each year and fields innumerable questions about how to get names removed from the list
Rick Kopel, acting director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, says little can be done to get them removed. A unit at the screening center in Crystal City, Va., responds to the complaints, he says, but will not remove a name if a terrorism suspect shares the same name.
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.
The screening center came under ridicule in 2006 when “60 Minutes” reported that 14 of the 19 Sept. 11th hijackers were listed, five years after their deaths.
Kopel defended the listings saying: “We know for a fact that these people will use names that they believe we are not going to list because they are out of circulation, either because they are dead or incarcerated. It’s not willy-nilly. Every name on the list, there is a reason that it’s on there.”