Terrorist Screening Center plagued by deficiencies, audit finds

The nation's primary center for helping government officials identify and apprehend terrorists is riddled with problems, including inaccurate and incomplete watch lists, management deficiencies, immature information technology and high personnel turnover, according to a report released this week.

The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center has successfully created a single, consolidated watch list to help law enforcement and government officials screen people for terrorists connections, the Justice Department's inspector general concluded in a recent audit.

U.S. officials worldwide can contact the TSC 24-hour call center, where staff field inquiries, check names against watch lists of known or suspected terrorists, and facilitate the identification and apprehension of terrorists. The IG report, however, confirmed that the TSC has many deficiencies.

"Although we found that the TSC had successfully created and deployed a consolidated watch list database, we also determined that the TSC could not ensure that the information in that database was complete and accurate," the report stated. "We found instances where the consolidated database did not contain names that should have been included on the watch list. In addition, we found inaccurate information related to persons included in the database."

At the start of fiscal 2005, the TSC had a budget of about $30 million and about 180 employees.

"Missing or incomplete terrorist records could have significant consequences, because known terrorists may go undetected if they attempt to enter the United States or are stopped by local police for a traffic violation," the IG report added. "Conflicting information can confuse or misinform screeners and contribute to the misidentification of an innocent person or the inappropriate release or admittance of a dangerous individual."

Through random sampling, the audit found that some individuals on the consolidated watch list who were termed "armed and dangerous" were given the lowest threat rating, meaning that law enforcement would not be alerted to take further action.

"At the time of our field work, TSC officials could not explain this apparent mismatch," the audit stated. "This situation, which represents a weakness in the database and places front-line law enforcement officers in a vulnerable position, should be addressed as quickly as possible."

The center also has no official plan for the future, the audit found.

"The TSC has no formal strategic plan by which to guide its progress, staffing, organizational structure and future planning," it continued. "In an effort to establish the call center and consolidate terrorist watch lists, planning at the TSC has taken a back seat to daily operations."

The audit also found staffing problems and management weaknesses at the 24-hour call center. For example, most staffers are on detail from other agencies for up to only 90 days. About 60 percent of staff are contractors.

The audit uncovered training problems and poor quality controls at the center, including at least four instances in which information that was identified as being classified was entered into an unclassified TSC database.

"A lack of sufficient training, oversight and general management of the call screeners has left the activities of the call center vulnerable to procedural errors, poor data entry and untimely responses to callers," the IG concluded.

The 180-page audit made 40 recommendations for improving the TSC. The FBI agreed with all but two of the recommendations, and officials said they were taking the actions necessary for improvement.

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