Unified watch list still in doubt

Congressional Democrats are questioning if terrorist watch lists have been merged as the deadline passed last week for a new center to lead the effort.

The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), charged with consolidating the dozen watch lists and providing a central hub for the information, was to be fully operational by Dec. 1, but several members of Congress said the Bush administration failed to deliver the center that the FBI was to administer.

"It is inexcusable that we have not heard whether or not this new center is operating around the clock to alert us to terrorists attempting to enter our county to do us harm," Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in a statement last week.

The center, announced in September, is intended to ensure that all agents receive the same terrorist information and can access it quickly. The FBI is expected to develop a single list in a common database.

FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell said the initial operation phase is running, but he declined to explain what the first phase was and if it included a single, consolidated list. He said officials would discuss the center's progress soon.

Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the FBI announced in an internal message that the center would open Dec. 1, but the "initial capabilities of the TSC will be limited." Homeland Security Department officials had said in May that a list would be ready by summer.

Democrats on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security also questioned the capability of the center to merge the lists, saying it was highly unlikely that the center would be fully operational by the deadline. They released a report last month with 10 basic requirements for an effective center.

"It remains unclear from the administration's announcements whether fundamental technical steps and policy decisions will be completed by Dec. 1 so that the TSC will, in fact, possess a robust, agile and comprehensive terrorist screening capability the moment that it begins its work," according to a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller signed by Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), the committee's ranking member, and other Democrats.

"Additionally, we understand that the transfer of watch list information from key agencies has only very recently begun, making it unlikely that a comprehensive and unified watch list will be in place before the first quarter of 2004," the letter reads.

Based on a study of the issue in the past year, Democrats identified necessary capabilities of the center. For example, the database should be comprehensive, accessible to all intelligence personnel, and flexible enough to identify suspected terrorists who use aliases or multiple spellings. There should also be procedures in place to govern who is placed on the list and how to remove people from the list, they said.

Paul Brubaker, a partner at the consulting firm ICG Government and former deputy chief information officer at the Defense Department, said the center is a means to an end, and the real measurement of its success is the outcome.

"The question to be asked is, are you getting the right information to the right people at the right time?" Brubaker said. "It's not enough to stand up a center and man it. You've got to focus on the results that are coming out of the center."

***

Merger recommendations

The House Select Committee on Homeland Security released a report with 10 recommendations for the Terrorist Screening Center, which is tasked with merging a dozen terrorist watch lists.

Among the recommendations:

* The center's systems should be tailored to allow for varied access levels to information.

* Its database should be secure enough to ensure that users requesting information have proper authorization.

* The system should be able to identify suspected terrorists who use known aliases or whose names have multiple spellings.

* The center must have a trained workforce, adequate facilities and technology, and sufficient funding.

* The information in the database should be automatically updated.

* The database should be accessible to all federal intelligence employees and screeners; federal, state and local law enforcement; and certain private- sector and foreign government officials.

* Clear rules should be in place to govern who is on the list and who can make changes to the list.

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