New center to merge terrorist watch lists

In the face of continuing criticism over the numerous terrorist watch lists in use across government, the Bush administration today outlined plans for a new center whose job it will be to run a database merging those lists.

Dubbed the Terrorist Screening Center, the new 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 FBI, the Homeland Security and State departments and the interagency Terrorist Threat Integration Center described the center at 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.

The number of lists to be consolidated is less than one dozen, Mefford said. The ultimate size of the database is still unclear, but it will likely run to several thousand names. State's Tipoff list, for instance, has about 110,000 names and the FBI's Violent Gang and Terrorist Offenders list another 7,000 names.

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, Mefford said.

Officials at the briefing 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 the job of merging the watch lists was the top IT priority of his department.

'We are moving rapidly to a point where we can tell you it's done. We are not quite there yet, but we will be there shortly,' Ridge said at a press briefing in April.

Lawmakers and the General Accounting Office have been highly critical of the government's inability to create a consolidated watch list. GAO reported in May that Homeland Security did not provide it with enough information for auditors to gauge the progress of the merger efforts (Click for May 1 GCN coverage).

The new 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.

A director still must be selected. The FBI director, after consulting with the attorney general and senior managers at Homeland Security and State, will name the center's director. Homeland Security will provide a deputy director.

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