The number of names in a secret U.S. database of suspected terrorists has swollen to 875,000 from 540,000 only five years ago, in part because of rule changes introduced after al Qaeda’s failed underwear bomb plot in 2009.
The new figures were released Friday by the U.S. National Counter-Terrorism Center, which manages the database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE. A senior intelligence official explained the changes to The Washington Times.
“It’s absolutely not unwieldy,” the official insisted. He was seeking to rebut charges that the growing size of such a database actually makes harder the work of finding real terrorists — what critics call the “larger haystack, same number of needles” problem.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have software tools for sorting through the data to find what they need, the official said, “They use the database every day and get the results they desire.”
As of December 2012, a factsheet from the center states, TIDE contained over 875,000 entries. Each one represents a known or suspected terrorist and includes all their known aliases and spelling variations on their name, the official said.
Less than one percent, or fewer than 9,000, were Americans, including both citizens and legal permanent residents, he said, adding the center does not release exact numbers.
The official said the larger number of entries in recent years was due in part to changes to the rules about who gets into the database. The changes were introduced in the wake of the botched Christmas 2009 attack on a Detroit-bound airliner by al Qaeda “underpants bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
After Abdulmutallab’s bomb — which he had successfully smuggled aboard in his underwear — failed to go off, lawmakers honed in on the way TIDE was managed and how names were added.
In response, the National Counter-Terrorism Center changed the rules.
“There’s a lower standard,” for who gets into TIDE, the official said, meaning “less specific derogatory information” about a suspect is needed before they are entered.
TIDE is not in itself a watchlist, but it is the prime source for the nation’s post-Sept. 11 unified terrorist watchlist for law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies, the Terrorist Screening Database, or TSDB.
The difference is vital because TSDB — which is used by state and local police, and multiple federal entities including customs and border agencies and the Transportation Security Administration — has to be unclassified. It is managed by the FBI-run Terrorism Screening Center.
TSDB is used by U.S. agencies, including several within the Department of Homeland Security, to populate their own watchlists, like the TSA’s “no-fly” list, CLASS, the State Department’s database for checking visa applications, and TECS, the customs and border watchlist.
TIDE, on the other hand, is classified at the “secret” level and is managed by the National Counter-Terrorism Center, which is an intelligence agency.
“TSDB is an unclassified subset of TIDE,” said the official, purged of derogatory information and instead just indicating what sort of a threat the individual might pose and what action law enforcement or other officials in contact with them should take.