Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US struggles to organize terror database

CONFUSION After the Sept. 11 attacks the US launched an effort to co-ordinate information on terrorists -- but the project has moved slowly and still isn't running


An ambitious effort to create a central terror suspect database for use by all US federal and local officials has been struggling for months because of challenges as mundane as merging Microsoft spreadsheets and as sensitive as protecting people's privacy.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft said in September that the Terrorist Screening Center -- "one-stop shopping so that every federal terrorist screener is working off the same page" -- would be operational by Dec. 1.

But in December, the FBI launched only a "test phase," while government employees and contractors at the northern Virginia center finish merging the identifying information on suspected or known terrorists into a single database.

US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said recently the goal now is to complete the work by mid-summer.

Still, Representative Jim Turner, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, is skeptical and said the database's completion is already overdue.

"The critical linchpin of identifying terrorists has yet to be put in place in a functional way," Turner said. "You need a place where local state and federal law-enforcement personnel can have access real time to a terrorist watch list. ... Two years is too long."

At a Senate Government Affairs Committee hearing last month, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the panel's senior Democrat, criticized the "labor-intensive and obviously risk-prone" work of checking airplane flight manifests against a dozen current terrorist watch lists, as was reportedly the case during the Christmas high alert.

"Right now, it's still a very cumbersome and time-consuming process," Ridge replied.

When completed, the database is supposed to allow any government official -- from a customs agent at an airport to a state trooper watching for speeders -- to check the name of someone they have screened or stopped.

If the name is on the watchlist, the official can then call a phone number for further information.

The outcomes will vary. At a point of entry, the person in question could be turned away. At a traffic stop, the police officer may make a note of where the person was.

For more serious situations, where the checked name matches that of a known terrorist, the official may detain the person and wait for a member of the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force to arrive.

About a dozen databases from nine agencies are being massaged and merged. Officials are studying whether to use the State Department's TIPOFF watchlist as the basic architecture.

FBI Director Robert Mueller has compared combining the information to lining up the colors on a Rubik's Cube.

Some of the problems are quite mundane. One law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a tricky problem is sorting out what is duplicative and what criteria should be used to develop the list, given all the available information.

More complex problems arise out of the issue of sharing data.

The intelligence community, for instance, may be leery of providing all it knows about a particular person to the central database because US investigators may want to let a suspected terrorist get on a flight, or go to a meeting, in order to track down others.

Officials decline to discuss such issues publicly. But one counterterrorism official privately said that such issues are raised and addressed constantly.

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