Federal Watch List Has 400,000 Names
By Ronald Kessler
A federal watch list of people connected to terrorism now has 400,000 names. The list, called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), is maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), established by President Bush in 2005.
“Whether it comes from an operations cable from the CIA or a very sensitive SIGINT [signals intelligence] from NSA, if there’s a piece of derogatory information on a known or suspected terrorist, it goes in that database,” Vice Adm. John Scott Redd, director of the NCTC, tells NewsMax.
Each electronic file on an individual includes hyperlinks to the originating information, including raw FBI files and, if available, fingerprint files and photographs. In the future, the files will link to iris scans, facial recognition, and DNA data.
Americans are included only if they have been convicted of terrorist activities or are under investigation by the FBI. The standard is far lower for people overseas.
Definition of a TerroristIn an interview, Russell E. Travers, who is in charge of the NCTC list as deputy director for information sharing and knowledge development, raised the question of how one defines a terrorist.
“If you swear allegiance to bin Laden, that’s pretty easy,” he said. “If you went to a training camp and have a history of blowing up U.S. interests, that’s pretty easy also. What if you went to a training camp, but then you decided you didn’t like this and went home? What if you are the brother of someone who swore loyalty to bin Laden? What if you are a member of an Islamic non-governmental organization, and some in that organization have clearly funneled money to al-Qaida? So the point is that this can become very gray. And given that we’re dealing with information that may be contradictory or it may be partial, this can be a difficult balance for us. We look at all the evidence and try to apply a reasonable standard.”
In the case of a foreign individual, “If someone was in a safe house, and we just have a name that they were in some way associated with a known al-Qaida guy, then even though we may have no other derogatory information beyond that, that would be enough to get them in TIDE and get them on a watch list, so that they won’t be able to get a visa to come to the country,” Travers says.
From the TIDE database, the NCTC extracts the name, date of birth, and some additional basic information to identify each possible terrorist. The NCTC passes those names, each tagged with a TIDE number, to the Terrorist Screening Center maintained by the FBI. Those names then form the basis for the no-fly list and other lists checked by U.S. Customs officers and State Department officers issuing visas. The FBI includes the names on its National Crime Information Center list that police officers check when stopping traffic violators, apprehending fugitives, or identifying stolen property.
If a traffic violator who is stopped in Maine is on the list as a possible terrorist, the officer at the scene can call the Terrorist Screening Center and obtain instructions. If the man is wanted, the officer will arrest him. Or the local Joint Terrorism Task Force may be called into action to conduct surveillance of the individual.
While the classified NCTC list has 400,000 names, 300,000 of them are separate individuals. The extra entries are aliases or different spellings of the same name. For example, there are dozens of ways to spell names like Muhammed. Osama bin Laden alone has more than half a dozen names or nicknames, including Mohammad. Usama bin Muhammad bin Ladin, Shaykh Usama bin Ladin, the Prince, the Emir, Abu Abdallah, Mujahid Shaykh, Hajj, and the Director.
The number of names on the no-fly list, maintained with the Transportation Security Administration, is far smaller. Only people who might pose a danger to civil aviation are supposed to be included, but there have been plenty of mix-ups.
A deputy assistant director of the FBI once found himself on the list. Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy had a close encounter with the list when trying to take the U.S. Airways shuttle out of Washington to Boston. According to Kennedy, the ticket agent would not let him on the plane. With help from an airport supervisor, Kennedy was able to fly home, but then the same thing happened coming back to Washington.
“This is not an exact science,” Travers says. “But it is one of many defenses that the government has for trying to keep prospective bad guys out of the country.”
In some cases, the FBI may override the no-fly list because the bureau wants a terrorist to enter the country so agents can arrest him or follow him.
The ACLU and other civil liberties advocates have complained that there is something inherently insidious about the number of names on the lists. Timothy Sparapani, the ACLU’s legislative counsel for privacy rights, has called the numbers “shocking but, unfortunately, not surprising.”
When the watch list had 300,000 names, he said, “We have lists that are having baby lists at this point; they’re spawning faster than rabbits. If we have over 300,000 known terrorists who want to do this country harm, we’ve got a much bigger problem than deciding which names go on which list. But I highly doubt that is the case.”
Yet the problem before 9/11 was that there were too few names on the lists. Back then, the government maintained four different classified terrorist identity databases and 13 independent watch lists. It was in part because the databases were incompatible that two of the 9/11 hijackers managed to slip into the country.
Before 9/11, “The classified databases and the watch lists didn’t interact,” says Travers. “So the reason that Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi [two of the 9/11 hijackers] didn’t get watch listed was because parts of the government knew about them, but that information was not percolated all over the place.”
Typically, up to 50 people are denied entry to the U.S. each day because they are on the lists. Five or seven of those people may be on the no-fly list. There is a direct correlation between possible terrorists who are denied entry to the U.S. and the fact that we have not been attacked in over five years.
When it was revealed that the government rated travelers who fly in and out of the country by degree of possible threat, critics said the criteria should be revealed and that travelers should have the right to see their ratings and challenge them. Of course, that would only undermine the effectiveness of the risk assessment program.
Protecting the List
If a terrorist could find out what criteria were used and how information was rated, he could circumvent the system. Letting travelers know what the criteria are would make as much sense as the Internal Revenue Service forewarning a taxpayer before he files his tax return which portion of his return the IRS plans to audit. Rather than invading privacy, the risk rating system is a way to narrow scrutiny of millions of travelers and protect them from another attack.
What the ACLU forgets is that people from other countries do not have a right to enter the U.S. Inevitably, some will be listed in error. But the alternative is to limit the list so much that terrorists can enter the country and pull off another 9/11 attack.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of NewsMax.com.View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you FREEvia e-mail. Go Here Now.
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Federal Watch List Has 400,000 Names