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.
Also excluded are entries in TIDE that are not specific enough to be useful for watchlisting purposes.
This complex and sprawling U.S. machinery for collecting, assessing and watchlisting information about suspected terrorists, established in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, has come under new scrutiny following the Boston Marathon bombing last month.
Accused Chechen-American bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was interviewed by the FBI in 2011, after Russian authorities said they were concerned he might be radicalizing and preparing to come to Russia to join Islamic extremist terror groups in the volatile Muslim-majority North Caucasus.
The FBI, who also interviewed relatives and trawled through Mr. Tsarnaev’s electronic communications, found no derogatory information and — after repeatedly requesting more details from the Russians and getting no response — closed their file, the bureau said last month.
While they were investigating him, the FBI listed him in TECS. But not as a terrorist, the senior intelligence official said.
The FBI determination at that time was that there was not sufficient derogatory information to consider Mr. Tsarnaev, a green card holder in the process of becoming a citizen, an “appropriately known or suspected terrorist,” the official said.
“They put him in TECS because they wanted to look at his travel history, not because” they thought he was a threat, the official said. He noted that law enforcement agencies can flag people for scrutiny when they travel abroad for a variety of non-terror related reasons, for example if they are suspected of involvement in drug or people smuggling, or they are believed to be a target or an operative of a foreign intelligence service.
The TECS listing caused what became “the ping heard ‘round the world.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress the week after the bombing that Mr. Tsarnaev had “pinged” in the DHS’ watchlist system when he left for Russia on a mysterious six-month visit which investigators believe may be crucial to understanding his motivation and capabilities for the bombing.
By the time he returned six months later, she said, the listing had lapsed because the FBI assessment had been closed.
The remarks prompted charges from lawmakers that U.S. intelligence agencies had once again failed to “connect the dots,” and thwart a terror plot in the making.
But last week, it emerged that both Mr. Tsarnaev and his mother Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, were entered into TIDE anyway, after the FBI had closed their investigation.
“After the FBI went back to the Russians for the second time, the Russians sent the same memo [that they had originally passed to the FBI] to the CIA,” the official said.
“The CIA knew the FBI had done a review, but out of an abundance of caution, they nominated him and his mother [to TIDE] anyway. Under the post-Abdulmutallab rules they were pushed to the TSDB,” he added.
Experts say the difference in the behavior of the two agencies is a classic example of how U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies — though they now work much more closely together on counter-terrorism — continue to have rather different approaches to the issue.
Phillip Mudd, a career counter-terrorism official who held senior posts with both the FBI and the CIA, said there were proper limits on what domestic agencies like the FBI should do to track terror threats, if Americans’ rights are to be protected and an open society maintained.
Speaking recently about the Boston case to a Washington think tank, Mr. Mudd said watchlisting every person ever flagged up as a potential jihadist, especially by a foreign intelligence service, would be beyond the nation’s resources, contrary to its constitution — and ineffective.
“How do you boil down the 10,000 other cases to that one guy” who is actually going to carry out an attack? “And what do you do about the false positives?” he asked — innocent people wrongly suspected, arrested or even charged?
Those who argue for greater vigilance “never talk about the false positives,” he averred.
Mr. Tsarnaev, 26, the elder of the two brothers accused of staging the Boston Marathon attack, died in a shootout with police in the days following the bombing. His younger brother Dzhokhar, 19, was captured the following day and is now facing charges.