Center to merge watch lists

Law enforcement and homeland security officials plan to create a new center that will be responsible for combining disparate terrorist watch lists and providing information to screeners and border agents.

The Terrorist Screening Center is intended to ensure all agents can receive the same terrorist information and access it quickly when a suspected terrorist is stopped or screened, officials said. The center's creation follows criticisms that the government has largely failed to consolidate the watch lists.

The center will develop a single list in a common database, accessible by law enforcement officials in the field through a robust communication system, said FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell.

The center is a partnership among the Justice, Homeland Security and State Departments, the FBI and the CIA. The center, likely to be housed in Northern Virginia, builds on efforts underway with the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and DHS' new Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection unit.

The General Accounting Office has identified a dozen different watch lists that are maintained at nine agencies. Congress has criticized DHS for moving too slowly to merge the lists and for passing the responsibility between agencies.

Watch lists are maintained by a number of agencies and are designed to provide information about known or suspected terrorists. When an individual applies for a visa or enters the United States, for example, government officials check the name to determine if the person should be denied entry or apprehended while in the country.

"The Terrorist Screening Center will provide 'one-stop shopping' so that every federal antiterrorist screener is working off the same page — whether it's an airport screener, an embassy official issuing visas overseas or an FBI agent on the street," Attorney General John Ashcroft said in a statement.

The consolidation effort has been underway at the FBI's Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, where the new center's operations will be phased in, officials said. The center will be operational by Dec. 1 and will be administered by the FBI. The principal deputy director of the center will be a DHS official.

The new center will receive most of its information about known or suspected terrorists from the TTIC after the information has been analyzed. The FBI will also provide the center with information about domestic terrorism, Cogswell said, which will be compiled into the database.

"The executive branch is attempting to promote some efficiency in government, provide some quality control over the lists and make sure ... there is some vetting in the process," Cogswell said.

Officials are unsure how large the database will be, and it likely will not be completed by the time the center opens in December, Cogswell said. Officials are still working out technical issues, such as what database and communication systems to use. Officials may rely on the National Crime Information Center, which officers can easily access for criminal information, he said.

Officials must also iron out information sharing and collaboration plans. The new center is expected to eliminate the need for separate lists by determining common criteria for a person to be placed on a watch list and a single point of contact for citizens who may have problems with the list, Cogswell said.

Peter Higgins, a consultant and former FBI information services official, said the key to merging the watch lists is putting effort into establishing those criteria. "I would think that if there are movements to combine existing lists, they should spend quite a bit of time on the business rules side of it," he said.

Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc, said although it's hard to tell if it was necessary to set up a new center to spearhead the watch list efforts, it appears to be a move in the right direction. "My guess is it's unlikely they are setting up a redundant operation here," he said.

"The whole terrorist response and screening hit us so quickly that we didn't have time to rationalize it in an organizational sense," he said.


Terrorist tracking

The General Accounting Office identified 12 terrorist watch lists in nine agencies. Here's a sample:

* The State Department's Tipoff system.

* The Transportation Security Administration's no-fly list.

* The FBI's Violent Gang Terrorist Organization File.

* The FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification list.

* The U.S. Marshals Service's Warrant Information.

* The Defense Department's Top Ten Fugitive list.

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