Terrorist watch lists: Are they working as they should?
Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was one of 875,000 names in a database the US uses to produce at least nine watch lists, but the naming didn't prevent the attack. Some security experts worry that data overload may be hindering US counterterrorism efforts.
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Even before the changes, concern was evident within the intelligence community about the huge amount of data being funneled into TIDE. Back in March 2010, Russell Travers, then deputy director of information sharing and knowledge development at the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate panel that the inflow of 10,000 names a day to TIDE had required some adjustments. Among them was the advent of special "pursuit teams" of analysts to explore threads, threats, and loose ends that would help "connect the dots," he said, acknowledging that the step was "an experiment."Skip to next paragraph
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The 2012 GAO report likewise noted concern among "nominating agencies" about their abilities to process so much information – especially after the changes that followed the underwear bombing attempt. It noted that "agencies are ... pursuing staffing, technology, and other solutions to address challenges in processing the volumes of information."
A notable watch list success
Despite the fire hose of incoming information, the US saw some success in apprehending terrorism suspects. After someone tried to set off a car bomb in New York's Times Square on May 1, 2010, investigators traced the crime to Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad – and added his name to the no-fly list at 12:30 p.m. on May 3. Later that evening, Mr. Shahzad was indeed attempting to make his getaway to Pakistan. Minutes before his flight was to depart, authorities spotted his name during a final check.
"What used to happen in days now happens in minutes or seconds," the US counterterrorism official says of recent watch list updating and technology upgrades. "The Times Square bomber actually got on the plane thinking he was getting away. But we have a real-time transactional interface with the Customs and Border Patrol. They screened the passenger manifest, arrested him, and took him off the plane."
Today, says the US counterterrorism official, the backlog of information has been eliminated and analytical resources are adequate. The number of names on the TSDB fluctuates, but during the past year appears to have "leveled off" at about a half million, he says.
Unconnected 'dots' in Tsarnaev case?
Questions remain, however, about the government's handling of Tsarnaev during the year leading up to the Boston bombings. Some wonder why he was not a candidate for extra scrutiny by a pursuit team or by the FBI. Others ask why federal authorities did not inform local police of the warnings about Tsarnaev's possible radicalization, so they could possibly keep an eye out.
Were there dots that, if connected, would have led to closer FBI scrutiny and prevention of the Boston Marathon bombings? If so, did data overload play a role?
"No, actually more data makes it more effective," insists the counterterrorism official. "The more derogatory information in there, the better able the system is to screen, and the better the whole system works."
But data overload is likely to be raised in future hearings on Capitol Hill, some say.
"I hope the Boston case will lead to a new revision of the watch list, to see whether we are adding just too much information on people so that it leads to a needle-in-the-haystack problem," Randol says.
"Right now, it isn't clear that there are plans in place to review the effectiveness of the watch list or whether the level of misidentification is growing because the haystacks are getting too big."
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