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Terrorism Database Still Far From Reality

The head of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center says the database's expected completion date is now December, but some lawmakers are skeptical that date will be met.

Lawmakers are concerned that a single federal terrorism database is still far from reality after getting the latest update from Donna Bucella, director of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which opened in January and will be the keeper of the database once it's finished. Bucella told the House Select Committee on Homeland Security this week that the database's new expected completion date is December, but the committee is skeptical that the new deadline can be met.

"Does the terrorist watch list exist? Yes," says Moira Whelan, the committee's press secretary. "Is it complete? No." The database technology is in place, and the incomplete assortment of information from existing watch lists has been assembled in an unstructured format. Law-enforcement officials are able to run checks against the database by contacting the FBI, but the list's usefulness ends there.

Whelan says there are several things holding up the database's completion, most notably the unwillingness of the Defense Department to share its own terrorist watch list because of concerns that ongoing investigations could be hampered by the actions of other federal officials. For instance, Whelan says the department doesn't want customs or border officials to detain someone whose connections to suspected drug lords it's tracking simply because that person's name shows up on a federal watch list. "It's our opinion that a lot of this is a failure of leadership," Whelan says. "Someone needs to say, 'I don't care what you think, give them your list, and give it to them now.' "

Screening center officials have found that their original estimate that some 12 terrorist watch lists existed within federal agencies has grown to at least 30, Whelan says. Additionally, all the federal agencies that would need access to a unified watch list have yet to put together a memorandum of understanding that essentially will act as a set of business rules dictating how the data would be used--a critical consideration given that privacy advocates have expressed strong concerns over how a master terrorism list might ultimately violate civil liberties. The list also needs to be converted into a structured database format so it can be referenced in multiple ways.

Whelan says that because so many tasks are yet to be done, the committee doesn't believe the list--which was bounced among three other agencies before landing with the FBI and has been delayed several times in the past year--will be done in December. Bucella also told the committee that work is under way to ensure that private companies--most notably airlines and infrastructure providers such as energy companies--can submit lists of individuals to be checked against the unified watch list. But that remains wishful thinking until the other hurdles are overcome, Whelan says. "None of these other systems can work as well as they need to until the master list is complete."

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