Monday, October 1, 2007

The Terrorist Screening Center has detected more than 40,000 people trying to gain entry into the U.S. who either associated with terrorist groups or were known terrorists themselves, and the database is only going to get better, says the agency’s chief.

“The country is undoubtedly much safer today as a result of the work at the Terrorist Screening Center,” said Director Leonard C. Boyle, who added that his agency is working to fix problems with the database identified by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General.

Mr. Boyle told The Washington Times that a memorandum of understanding was signed last month by very “high ranking members” in all federal law-enforcement agencies to assist the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) — the nation’s primary center for helping government officials identify and apprehend terrorists — in removing names that should not be there and increasing the accuracy of the names that should.

“We can more directly determine whether a person who is on a watch list should be on the watch list,” Mr. Boyle said of the memorandum, which took effect immediately, although he did not provide a copy of it. “This memorandum of understanding is to be principally responsible to redress the determination.”

As of April 2004, the database contained more than 700,000 entries. The list is developed through the intelligence community responsible for foreign targets being placed on the list, while the FBI is responsible for placing domestic terrorist threats to the list.

It is not certain, however, how many of the more than 40,000 actual terrorist hits were stopped from entering the U.S. by the agencies accessing the database.

Although the FBI’s worldwide screening center was successful in detecting positive terrorist matches worldwide, the center is not responsible for stopping their entry into the U.S.

“What we do is to provide those screeners with as much information as we have on that particular person and their ties to terrorism,” Mr. Boyle said. “The agencies make the final determination on whether they can enter. We simply provide information. When we determine whether that person is on the watch list, we notify the FBI, and the FBI can take whatever measures it deems necessary.”

Between December 2003 and May 2007, TSC has recorded about 99,000 calls for possible terrorist hits from government and law-enforcement agencies such as the State Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Mr. Boyle said recent criticism from the Inspector General’s investigation is understandable, but the report failed to mention the numerous terrorists who have been prevented from entering the country since the inception of the database.

“In the space of 3½ years, the Terrorist Screening Center has made extraordinary strides in providing information on known and suspected terrorists to those who have to make the important determination on persons whom we should allow into the country,” Mr. Boyle said.

Mr. Boyle said that the creation of the database, which was not available before the September 11 terrorist attacks, has enabled “a force multiplier of 750,000 police officers” including municipal, county, state and tribal officers.

“Prior to the creation of the screening center, while those persons at State and customs had access to some information regarding the applicant, they did not have access to the entire U.S. government law enforcement and intelligence community database, of known and suspected terrorists. As a result of the TSC’s creation, all of that information is now available to those screeners.”

While the Justice Department report noted that the consolidated watch list is successful in helping law enforcement and government officials screen persons for terrorist connections, it added that the database still faces numerous challenges.

“Although we found that the TSC had successfully created and deployed a consolidated watch list database, we also determined that the TSC could not ensure that the information in that database was complete and accurate,” the report stated. “We found instances where the consolidated database did not contain names that should have been included on the watch list. In addition, we found inaccurate information related to persons included in the database.”

One of the most widely reported mistakes was the 2004 detention of 1970s folk singer Cat Stevens, who converted and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, which reportedly resembles a name that, with slight spelling changes, is on the U.S. “terror watch” list.

Mr. Boyle said the governmentwide process will better use the biometric system — including fingerprints, DNA and iris scans — to ensure the effectiveness of the list. He said he understands the concerns reported over the recent years of persons being wrongly placed on the “no-fly” lists.

Still, the director emphasized that the process to remove persons from the list “is one that takes time.”

“Our first obligation is protecting the American public,” said Mr. Boyle. “It is not simply protecting them from attack but doing so in such a way to protect their privacy and civil liberties. We remove names every day for people no longer suspected of being on the terrorist watch list, but the process is not always instantaneous.”

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