Justice IG, FBI spar over IT management of terrorist watch list

'Today, officers on the street, border patrol officials and consular officers in embassies all have access to the same updated list.'

'Center director Donna A. Bucella

Rachael Golden

A new report on IT problems at the interagency Terrorist Screening Center, followed by a contrary reaction from the FBI, is the latest in a series of disputes about the bureau's technology aptitude.

A report from Justice's inspector general, Glenn Fine, said the FBI-run center for merging terrorist watch lists has suffered from poor IT management and that its database is riddled with errors.

While Terrorist Screening Center director Donna A. Bucella defended her organization's work, citing the 'significant strides' the center has made in its first 18 months, Fines' report was yet another criticism of the FBI's handling of IT during the past five years.

Fines' earlier reports pilloried the now-defunct Virtual Case File system and the department's project to coordinate the FBI's offender fingerprint database with a comparable Homeland Security Department fingerprint database developed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

But Bucella claims that law enforcement officials have access to the combined terrorist watch lists and it is making a difference.

'Since its inception, the TSC has had over 16,000 encounters with individuals on the watch list,' she said, noting that the IG conducted the study at her request. 'Today, officers on the street, border patrol officials and consular officers in embassies all have access to the same updated list of known and suspected terrorists maintained by the U.S. government.'

The IG report cited missing and inaccurate information in the watch list. For example, the auditors found 31,194 records that lacked codes to show that the individuals were considered armed and dangerous. The report sparked a mix of anger and concern on Capitol Hill.

'Troubling' report

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the report was 'troubling, to say the least. It's hard to see how the way the terrorist screening center is being used can actually help make America safer.'

He said the list is incomplete and puts first responders at risk.

'Just the fact that members of foreign terrorist organizations, hijackers, users of explosives and firearms, and known terrorists did not earn an 'armed and dangerous' rating defeats the whole purpose of the TSC,' Thompson said.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said, 'The Terrorist Screening Center is on the right track, but it needs attention and support from the highest levels of government,' including the Justice and Homeland Security departments, FBI, National Counterterrorism Center and the new director of National Intelligence.

The report tracked the development of the Terrorist Screening Database, which draws information from the government's 12 acknowledged watch lists, through three versions since March 2004.

Bucella said that TSC's database is up to date and contains information on all known or suspected terrorists.

But a congressional terrorism specialist, who requested anonymity, questioned Bucella's assertion of the watch list's accuracy, noting that the center accepts information from the intelligence community's National Counter Terrorism Center 'on blind faith' and lacks analysts to check it.

Center officials launched the first version of the Terrorist Screening Database, called TSDB 1A, on March 12, 2004. This first version used data received directly from other agencies and included many duplicate names. Center workers updated TSDB 1A manually every day using diskettes from the partner agencies, and sent their updated list to other agencies via diskette in a 'sneakernet' approach.

The report included 40 recommendations for upgrading TSC operations. The TSC issued a response to the IG's recommendations, saying that it is adopting 38 of the recommendations in a process that will be complete by Sept. 30, but it is rejecting two others.

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