Ridge promises to merge watch lists this year

The government will combine about a dozen terrorist watch lists into one this year, vows Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge.

The interagency Terrorist Screening Center, run by the FBI, now is carrying out the watch list function begun by the Homeland Security Department, Ridge said.

'We do not have the databases integrated, but that is the goal,' he said last month at a briefing in Washington.

Currently, officials from several agencies detailed to work at the center check numerous databases to determine if an individual appears on a terrorist watch list.

'We will have it all integrated in the months ahead,' Ridge said.

Nine law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security agencies maintain a dozen separate watch lists for various purposes, according to the General Accounting Office and other sources.

Officials from the FBI, Justice Department, intelligence community and DHS announced in September that the screening center would serve as a clearinghouse for terrorist watch list information. The center began operation in mid-November, about two weeks before its official launch date of Dec. 1.

'For the time being, everybody that's got a database is located in this one area,' Ridge said of the center in Arlington, Va. 'They have dozens of people working on it. When we get an inquiry, everybody takes that name and matches it against' their separate databases, he said.

Lawmakers and GAO have been highly critical of the government's slow pace in creating a consolidated watch list. Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking minority member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, and his Democratic colleagues recently issued a report that blasted watch list merger delays.

Citing GAO studies and congressional testimony of DHS officials, Turner's report said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration has transferred responsibility for watch list merger four times.

Delay factors

Although the FBI manages the Terrorist Screening Center, bureau officials declined to provide information about watch list merger plans or the center's operations.

Some observers cited interagency rivalries, viewed by many as a barrier to information sharing, as a factor in the merger delay.

'I think one of the big obstacles is that the agencies secretly want to have their own lists,' said James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 'The good news is that FBI director Robert S. Mueller and his people are aware of these problems, such as having one person with different spellings of their name.'

The prospects of a single umbrella list are not attracting universal acclaim, however. James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noted that there might be a need for more than one list to serve different purposes.

'Some people on the do-not-fly list are there because they got drunk on a plane once and had to be kicked off,' Carafano said. 'Do you want that guy on the terrorist watch list? No. Do you want him on a do-not-fly list? Yes.'

To make the merger happen, agencies must resolve data ownership issues. Some specific pieces of data in the watch list databases are tagged as ORCON, meaning its release is controlled and must be approved by the originating agency, according to the Justice Department inspector general.

Unless the agencies can resolve this issue, it will be possible for an intelligence agency, say, to be aware of useful watch list information that it may not have the authority to pass on to another agency.

A Senate staff aide who had received briefings from center officials said the watch list merger 'is a really challenging thing. You can slap together a unified list, but on a lot of these lists, in addition to terrorists, you have mobsters and gangsters.'

The Senate aide said the center is winnowing the lists and developing profiles of terrorists to create a gateway database. 'My understanding is that they are going to create one new database that is going to reach back to other databases,' the aide said.

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