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terrorist screening center by erika trautman

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 master list.

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.

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Erika Trautman is a student at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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posted october 16, 2003

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