KEEPING TERRORISTS Off the Front Page

Information exchanged through the Terrorist Screening Center raises the red flag on terror suspects.


"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.

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