The new Terrorist Screening Center, which opened in December
2003, consolidates all U.S. agency terrorist watch lists into one,
unified database that will be available to everyone from local police
forces to U.S. embassies overseas that grant visas to foreign visitors
and immigrants. Administered by the FBI, the center is a
collaborative effort between the Departments of Justice, State, Homeland
Security and the intelligence community.
Prior to the TSC's opening, nine federal agencies kept 12 separate terrorist watch
lists that were not always synchronized or shared, a problem that became
readily apparent after Sept. 11, when it came to light that the names of two of the
hijackers had been on the CIA's terrorist list. The CIA didn't pass
those names to the FBI or immigration officials until after the men had
entered the country.
[Editor's Note: See FRONTLINE's October 2002
report on this particular communication breakdown.]
The State Department's comprehensive TIPOFF list, which contains more
than 100,000 suspected or known terrorists, will likely serve as the
basis for the screening center database, Secretary of State Colin Powell
said in a prepared statement. The
CIA will funnel its foreign terrorist lists to the master database, and
the FBI will be responsible for passing along their list of suspected
terrorists inside the U.S.
While a variety of agencies can nominate suspected terrorists, TSC
will have final authority over which names make the database. But
officials have not yet established what the deciding criteria will be.
Nor has the administration outlined measures to cull mistakes from the
Critics of the government's terrorist watch lists cite the
"Evansville Eight" as representing the potential danger of such lists.
In this case, seven Egyptian men and one naturalized U.S. citizen,
living in Evansville, Ind. were detained just following the Sept. 11
attacks because the estranged wife of one of the men told the FBI that
her husband and his friends were planning a terrorist attack. The men
were released after the FBI found the wife's allegations false.
However, according to Special Agent Tom Fuentes, former head of the
Indianapolis FBI field office, "Unfortunately, the record still remained
in the system," even though the allegations were determined to be
untrue. "Having been arrested, their names were entered into databases
as terrorists … and even though they had been cleared, and
released, and allowed to go home to Evansville, there were repercussions
as a result of their names being in," he says.
One of the "Evansville Eight" was held for six hours at an airport
while officials investigated his status. Others found the terrorist
allegations appearing when they applied for jobs or loans.
Officials say TSC will help fix such problems because having one
centralized database instead of 12 separate lists will make it easier to
remove names that appear in error.
Erika Trautman is a student at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.