Deciding who might be a terrorist is more of an art than a science.
The FBI's Web site describes the Terrorist Screening Center as an "anxious" place, full of "serious faces-like you see at NASA's Mission Control right before a launch." The TSC is essentially a call center, staffed around the clock by government employees and contractors who field queries from law enforcement, security and intelligence agencies that all ask the same basic question: Is the guy we just stopped at the border or pulled out of an airline queue, a known or suspected terrorist? The FBI calls it "one-stop shopping."
The TSC was established to consolidate the dozens of so-called terrorist watch lists that proliferated across government before and immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. The center has been up and running for about four years now, and while its master list is far from perfect, how it was created gives you a good idea of how difficult information sharing really is, and what intelligence agencies face today as they struggle to get on the same page.
The watch list has something of a bad rap. Airline passengers in particular, who are frequently subjected to close scrutiny, often assume their name is in the government's files for reasons they're not allowed to know. But the TSC doesn't maintain a "black list," according to Donna Bucella, the center's first director, who led the consolidation effort.
Bucella, who recounted her experiences at a panel discussion hosted by Government Executive in July, likened the list to a database of people the government believes require further scrutiny.
Who decides what names go on the list? Settling that question was one of the TSC's first challenges. The agencies with a stake in the list-principally the FBI, the State and Defense departments, and the intelligence agencies-all had their own way of handling information, and each had different ideas about names they wanted to add. "We had 10 sets of eyes looking at the same nomination," Bucella said. She let that continue for the center's first year, and then set a new mandate: We are one.
The screening center laid out some basic criteria for adding a name. First, an individual had to have some demonstrable nexus to terrorism. An agency couldn't just tell the center, "trust us," Bucella said. Every day, the TSC would get an upload of 300 to 500 names. Those weren't all new; some included updated information about existing names. But the pace was relentless. Perhaps inevitably, then, people who shouldn't have been on the list ended up there anyway. From 2005 to 2006, Bucella said, there were almost 400 requests for redress from individuals and 80 names were removed. Once, in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day, the center looked for all the Irish names to clear up any confusion that might arise with the influx of foreign visitors heading to holiday celebrations. It wasn't uncommon to drill down on a name and discover that someone an agency had encountered wasn't actually the person on the list, even though the two shared the same name, Bucella said. But when the TSC did get a hit, day or night, officers would contact the person who had added the name.
To hear Bucella describe it, building and maintaining the watch list is more of an art than a science. Indeed, there have been plenty of hiccups along the way. In 2005, the Justice Department inspector general found that the TSC "could not ensure that the information in the database was complete and accurate," and some names that should have been on the list weren't.
But that's to be expected from such a subjective endeavor. There was no template for how to consolidate all this information years ago, and there still isn't. The consolidated watch list is, in its own right, a legitimate bureaucratic success. But how it was built and how it is maintained lets you in on one of the hard realities about sharing intelligence and hunting for terrorists: Mistakes are unavoidable.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.