"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."

Creating consistency

Besides creating a comprehensive watch list, in its inception TSC was charged with developing a consistent approach to terrorist screening.

"In order to even get to us, you've had to have already been screened by an acceptable entity, state or federal," says Bucella. "We don't just cold call run people through the database. What we do is very, very sensitive."

Screening opportunities include application for a passport or visa, or for work in an industry regulated by federal or state government, border crossing/entrance into the United States, commission of a crime, etc.

The screening process basically consists of running the name through the appropriate database — law enforcement would run NCIC, the State Department through the Consular Affairs database, etc. — which would automatically connect to the TSC watch list. "It doesn't matter if you are in Blaine, Washington, or El Paso, Texas, or in an embassy," explains Bucella. "All of the names of people that have been watch listed are known to everybody at the same time. It is the same list being applied throughout our government."

By connecting to this master list, the TSC has raised the level of consistency and accountability. "After the Terrorist Screening Center was created, for the very first time in a consistent fashion, federal, state, local and tribal officials were now being connected with the federal government's response or participation in dealing with terrorism," says Bucella. "If our list is used, we have accountability of where the encounter occurred, and that information is shared with the appropriate authorities."

Updated every 35 seconds, a geographical map of the day's terrorist encounters is produced. This map is shared with a variety of high-ranking officials including the president; heads of the CIA, DHS and FBI; and other members of the intelligence community. From this map, and the information attached to it, officials can learn the location and prescribed route of a terror suspect, why the suspect was encountered on this day, a history of previous encounters, etc.

Going global

The TSC's third directive was to share or at least engage in conversations in sharing watch-listed names with foreign governments. "Terrorism is without borders and with our foreign counterparts, this terrorist list probably at some point will become global," says Bucella.

In order to make this sharing possible, President Bush included the Terrorist Screening Center as one of the entities allowed to negotiate with foreign governments, previously a position only held by the DOS.

Open for business

On December 1, 2003, the TSC's 24/7 call center opened it doors for business with a partial watch list in hand. "The first day we had something in the ballpark of 10 to 14 calls, and I thought we are going to be like the Maytag repair man," tells Bucella.

But as she also points out, they had less than three months to notify all state, local, tribal, territorial and federal agencies, as well as the intelligence community, as to the creation and function of this new center. "We sent out a message to all of law enforcement, and that really wasn't the best way to do it," she says.

Instead, word of mouth and familiarity with the system have aided in the increased use. "It took a couple months and then all of a sudden we went up to 30, 40 and then 50 calls per day," says Bucella. "For more than a year now we've been going over 100 calls a day."

The TSC's interconnectedness with various government agencies also has added to the growing awareness.

"The FBI provides us 10 temporary agents, from all over the country, for a period of 90 days," Bucella explains. "Some of them have experience in terrorism when they arrive, but all of them do when they go back to their offices as our ambassadors. They get to learn firsthand what the Terrorist Screening Center does and our relationships with state and local agencies."

Governmental melting pot

Not only does the TSC connect a variety of agencies, but it is staffed by a melting pot of individuals from these agencies. The FBI, DHS, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration, Secret Service, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration, DOS and Office of Foreign Asset Control have permanent and temporary positions within the TSC.

Because "no single agency has the answer," the advantage of this varied staff is the ability to learn from each other and leverage the expertise, best practices and contacts the personnel bring to the table. "The beauty of this place is we are able to draw on the expertise of each of the different agencies because everybody works under the same roof," says Bucella.

In the future Bucella hopes to increase the local law enforcement presence in the TSC by adding a local law enforcement representative to her leadership team as an associate director. "We want to make sure that people from our law enforcement community are included and not excluded," she says. "We've made tremendous strides with the cooperation of people, not in spite of everybody."

The key to the future success of the TSC is continuing this cooperative effort. "I'm surprised it didn't happen before, but I really think it was not because people weren't willing," notes Bucella. "I think people were operating in different worlds and didn't necessarily know how to communicate.

"At the Terrorist Screening Center, we're just encouraging everybody to talk both ways. We're the operator. We hook people up from one line to another."

And this information sharing is both producing "Terrorist plot foiled" headlines and saving lives. As Bucella says, "This information could not only save the officer's life, it could save thousands of other lives, and that is why we encourage people to give us a call."

To contact the TSC for more information, call 866/872-5678.