"Terrorist plot foiled."
Whether the arrests occurred in the United Kingdom, Denmark or the United States, this headline is appearing more frequently on the front page of the morning newspaper and as the top story on the nightly news. But how do these plots get foiled? How is the information gathered?
The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), located in Washington, D.C., is the U.S. central hub for terrorist identities information gathered from a variety of sources — the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of State (DOS), FBI, National Security Agency (NSA), all levels of law enforcement, etc. Not only does the TSC leverage the information gathered by police officers during their daily patrols, but it also lets cops on the street know if the individuals they encounter are suspected terrorists or allied to terrorism.
"We're going to let you know that the U.S. government is looking at somebody related solely to terrorism," says Donna Bucella, director of the TSC until her retirement in late August. "And it doesn't require an officer to do anything other than make an additional phone call."
Making the list
On September 16, 2003, President George W. Bush issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive-6 (HSPD-6) establishing the TSC as a multi-agency effort with three primary goals: to consolidate the various terrorist watch lists, create a consistent approach to screening and share watch-listed names with foreign governments.
Although compiling a list of terrorists and those appropriately associated with terrorists may seem like a relatively easy task — just ask and compile — it was not. Some contributed lists were Top 20s, others Top 100; some contained aliases while others did not. After 3 1/2 months of gathering, collating and cleaning, the TSC had a comprehensive list.
But the watch list is not a finalized, stagnant document. "It changes every day all day," explains Bucella. "Adds, modifies, deletes, names coming on, names going off, better names, aliases linked up, etc. The list changes so often it is hard to even capture the exact number."
Containing both domestic and international terror suspects — mostly international — the individuals are divided into four categories. Category 1 individuals should be arrested immediately. There already exists some legal process on this person, such as an arrest warrant or indictment. Category 2 defines people who may have ties to terrorism and should be detained for a reasonable period of time for questioning. Both Category 1 and Category 2 individuals comprise a very small percentage of the entire database.
In comparison, Category 3 makes up the lion's share of the persons on the TSC's consolidated terrorist watch list. These people may have ties to terrorism, but don't know the government is aware of their activities. Officers encountering a Category 3 individual should attend to the traffic stop, or whatever incident, as they normally would but ask probing questions to get a positive ID, possibly gather new intelligence and call the TSC.
Category 4, again a small percentage of the database, identifies people who may be tied to terrorism, but the connection is unclear. Again, officers should try to get a positive ID and then call the TSC if they think the individual should be investigated further for terrorist activity.
As Bucella cautions, "All terrorists are criminals, but not all criminals are terrorists." This is why one of the TSC's most important functions is to get misrepresented people off the list.
"We realize the allegation of someone being affiliated with terrorism carries with it a heavy number of consequences," stresses Bucella. "It's as important for us to get people off the list as it is to put people's names on the list."
Besides creating a comprehensive watch list, in its inception TSC was charged with developing a consistent approach to terrorist screening.