Inside the Terrorist
Michael Ross, left, a watch commander
at the Terrorist Screening Center, said
the four-year-old program administered
by the FBI is about connecting the
dots and closing the loops.
days before the attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon in 2001, a Maryland
State Trooper stopped Ziad Jarrah for speeding
near the Delaware state line. The trooper
checked Jarrah's license and registration
against a database of "wants and warrants,"
and it came back clean. The trooper later
called the stop routine. He had no way of
knowing that Jarrah was on a CIA watch list
and that he was central to an unfolding plot
to attack the U.S.
forward to today: if Jarrah was stopped for
speeding, a query of his information in the
FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC)
would automatically check him against a master
list of known or appropriately suspected terrorists.
The presence of Jarrah's name would raise
a flag, and the trooper would be prompted
to call the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC),
where analysts would run more extensive checks
to see if the Jarrah at the traffic stop is
the same one of interest to the intelligence
community. The screening center might guide
the trooper through some questions to ask
Jarrah or contact its operational unit to
coordinate a response, such as dispatching
agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force
to the scene.
difference today: Jarrah wouldn't fall
through the cracks.
weakness pre-9/11 was an inability to share
information about suspected terrorists,"
said Leonard Boyle, director of the Terrorist
Screening Center, which was created in 2003
to mesh and manage a dozen disparate watch
lists of known or appropriately suspected
terrorists. "What the TSC is doing is
expanding significantly our ability to keep
people out of the country who intend to do
us harm and keep track of people in the country
who want to do us harm."
addition to traffic stops, names are checked
against the list at all border crossings and
international flights into the U.S.the
No-Fly list administered by the Department
of Homeland Security is fed by the TSC.
FBI-administered TSC is staffed by liaisons
from across the federal counterterrorism community
and operates 24 hours a day, seven days a
week. The screening center, housed in a nondescript
building in Northern Virginia, receives hundreds
of calls a week, many from municipal police
running checks at traffic stops.
encountersthose where there's a matchdon't
necessarily end in arrest. In fact, presence
on the TSC list does not, in and of itself,
warrant arrest. Instead, police gather as
much information as they can and often send
drivers on their way, adding another critical
piece to the larger intelligence puzzle.
not about making arrests," said Michael
Ross, a watch commander at the TSC. "It's
about connecting the dots and closing the
dots literally appear on a large screen in
the hub of the cloistered screening center,
where encounters are color coded on a map
of the U.S., one of the many ways they can
spot trends and track potential threats.
on the TSC's master list are constantly added,
modified, and deletedpurging names with
no nexus to terrorism is a priority since
they may distract from the serious threats.
last thing we want is law enforcement wasting
their time on someone who's not a threat,"
TSC Director Boyle said. "We have a real
interest in getting people off the list when
information no longer suggests they should
be there. We remove names every day."
in names and spellings occasionally cause
delays for individuals flagged during encounters.
Those who were unduly delayed can file an
action with the agency involved. If it's related
to the screening center's watch list, the
TSC has staff dedicated solely to resolving
their complaints and trying to minimize future
inconveniences. They will review a case and
reach out to the agency that added the individual,
then make a fresh call as to what that person's
status should be.
not 'Let's see how many names we can jam on
the list,'" said Ross. "We're very,
very serious about trying to keep the list
as tight as possible."
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