Terror lists remain disparate

A consolidated database for a single terrorist watch list is still not operational, and one lawmaker blames the delay on a lack of leadership.

Officials at the FBI-led Terrorist Screening Center, responsible for consolidating a dozen terrorist watch lists, are testing a database application but missed the Dec. 1, 2003, deadline to have the center and merged list completed, according to Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

According to a Dec. 18, 2003, letter to Turner from Eleni Kalisch, the FBI's assistant director of congressional affairs, "The TSC is currently in the test phase of the consolidated database application, which will assimilate available terrorist information into one unified database."

Fewer than 20 percent of the records for the master watch list have been consolidated, Turner said.

Responsibility for merging the lists has been handed off between different agencies at least four times, he added. The screening center was announced in September to clarify that responsibility, and officials recently said the lists would be consolidated by late spring or early summer.

"In my judgment, the technology is available to solve this problem," Turner said during a call-in press conference today. "What I think we've seen is a lack of leadership in forcing that technology to be used and going through the task to make the policy decisions."

Although it's difficult to determine the number of names in the overlapping lists, Turner estimated it in the tens of thousands, a small database compared to the large amounts of data often merged by commercial firms.

In the letter to Turner, FBI officials outlined the progress of the center so far. They have designed an encounter management process to notify the appropriate law enforcement agency if a match has been made between a suspect and a name on the list. Officials have also developed a process to review and accept or reject names nominated to be added to the list. Similarly, a misidentification and deletion process was created to ensure that the right names are in the database, FBI officials said.

Also, officials have established controls to ensure that the appropriate people access the watch list information, and the center's director recently established a multiagency working group to review privacy implications, Kalisch wrote.

The center will be one of the first orders of business when the homeland security committee returns from the congressional recess, said Turner, who plans to ask the committee's chairman, Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), to hold a hearing on the subject.

"I don't think we can do anything other than continue to point out this failure with the hope that the [Bush] administration will devote more leadership to get this done," Turner said.

He described the screening center as currently a call-in center where a screener or border agent calls to check a name. "They'll start searching various databases they have access to and try to get back to you with a response," he said.

"It is very clear we are still not where we need to be," he added. "That database should be accessed in real time by federal, state and local officials. Until we do that, we are severely handicapped in our ability to keep terrorists out of the country."

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