March 1st, 2009 14:21 EST
Going Inside the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center
Two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, a Maryland State Trooper stopped Ziad Jarrah for speeding near the Delaware state line. The trooper checked Jarrah`s license and registration against a database of "wants and warrants," and it came back clean. The trooper later called the stop routine. He had no way of knowing that Jarrah was on a CIA watch list and that he was central to an unfolding plot to attack the U.S.
Fast forward to today: if Jarrah was stopped for speeding, a query of his information in the FBI`s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) would automatically check him against a master list of known or appropriately suspected terrorists. The presence of Jarrah`s name would raise a flag, and the trooper would be prompted to call the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), where analysts would run more extensive checks to see if the Jarrah at the traffic stop is the same one of interest to the intelligence community. The screening center might guide the trooper through some questions to ask Jarrah or contact its operational unit to coordinate a response, such as dispatching agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force to the scene.
The difference today: Jarrah wouldn`t fall through the cracks.
"The weakness pre-9/11 was an inability to share information about suspected terrorists," said Leonard Boyle, director of the Terrorist Screening Center, which was created in 2003 to mesh and manage a dozen disparate watch lists of known or appropriately suspected terrorists. "What the TSC is doing is expanding significantly our ability to keep people out of the country who intend to do us harm and keep track of people in the country who want to do us harm."
In addition to traffic stops, names are checked against the list at all border crossings and international flights into the U.S. "the No-Fly list administered by the Department of Homeland Security is fed by the TSC.
The FBI-administered TSC is staffed by liaisons from across the federal counterterrorism community and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The screening center, housed in a nondescript building in Northern Virginia, receives hundreds of calls a week, many from municipal police running checks at traffic stops.
Positive encounters "those where there`s a match "don`t necessarily end in arrest. In fact, presence on the TSC list does not, in and of itself, warrant arrest. Instead, police gather as much information as they can and often send drivers on their way, adding another critical piece to the larger intelligence puzzle.
"It`s not about making arrests," said Michael Ross, a watch commander at the TSC. "It`s about connecting the dots and closing the loops."
The dots literally appear on a large screen in the hub of the cloistered screening center, where encounters are color coded on a map of the U.S., one of the many ways they can spot trends and track potential threats.
Records on the TSC`s master list are constantly added, modified, and deleted "purging names with no nexus to terrorism is a priority since they may distract from the serious threats.
"The last thing we want is law enforcement wasting their time on someone who`s not a threat," TSC Director Boyle said. "We have a real interest in getting people off the list when information no longer suggests they should be there. We remove names every day."
Similarities in names and spellings occasionally cause delays for individuals flagged during encounters. Those who were unduly delayed can file an action with the agency involved. If it`s related to the screening center`s watch list, the TSC has staff dedicated solely to resolving their complaints and trying to minimize future inconveniences. They will review a case and reach out to the agency that added the individual, then make a fresh call as to what that person`s status should be.
"It`s not `Let`s see how many names we can jam on the list,`" said Ross. "We`re very, very serious about trying to keep the list as tight as possible."