FBI to merge terrorist watch lists

FBI's Larry Mefford describes the new center.

J. Adam Fenster

In the face of continuing criticism over the dozen distinct watch lists in use across government, the Bush administration last week outlined plans for a new FBI center whose job it will be to create a database merging those lists.

Dubbed the Terrorist Screening Center, the unit will consolidate the government's watch lists into a central repository of data available to users around the clock, said Larry Mefford, the FBI's executive assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.

Mefford, along with officials from the Homeland Security and State departments and the interagency Terrorist Threat Integration Center, described the center during a briefing at FBI headquarters.

'This center will provide enhanced quality control' of the terrorist watch lists, he said. It will also establish a way for people to challenge their inclusion on the list, Mefford said.

The center's database, which users will access through the FBI's National Criminal Information Center, will include subfiles available to specific agencies' users. The database's information will be categorized as sensitive but unclassified, Mefford said.

Initially, users will be able to match names against the database and get limited information if there's a hit.

But eventually the center will provide expanded details, such as biometric data, about the people turned up by searches, said Bill Parrish, acting assistant secretary of Homeland Security for information analysis.

Officials did not discuss how the latest plan would affect work that Homeland Security has been doing with the lists. In appearances on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, secretary Tom Ridge has repeatedly said merging the watch lists was DHS' top IT priority.

Lawmakers and the General Accounting Office have been highly critical of the government's inability to create a consolidated watch list. GAO reported this spring that Homeland Security did not provide it with enough information for auditors to gauge the progress of the merger efforts.

(To read the GAO report online, go to www.gcn.com and enter 163 in the GCN.com/search box.)
DHS spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department has been moving forward expeditiously, but 'there are a number of complexities associated with consolidating the many lists.'

A chief hurdle was the creation of another center, the Terrorism Threat Integration Center. 'One of the major things has been the creation of TTIC, which will have a major role in providing the data to create this list,' Roehrkasse said.

President Bush in January announced TTIC, which is responsible for meshing terrorist intelligence efforts. TTIC began work in May. Preparing for DHS' role in the center affected efforts to merge the watch lists, Roehrkasse said.

The Terrorist Screening Center will begin operating Dec. 1 in the Arlington, Va., offices of the FBI's Foreign Terrorism Tracking Task Force. It will have an initial staff of about 60, made up of employees from several federal agencies, Mefford said.

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