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Terrorist Screening Center Marks Five Years

TSC Director Leonard Boyle
TSC Director Leonard Boyle says the five-year-old center has succeeded in it's mission to consolidate all the terrorist watch lists. | All About TSC

The Terrorist Screening Center’s recent five-year-anniversary celebration—like its operation—was decidedly low-key.

The September 17 event, in a cramped conference room at TSC’s headquarters in Northern Virginia, brought together staff who have manned the 24-hour call center since its early days as a “start-up.” What began with 10 employees tasked by a 2003 presidential directive to create and manage a single watch list of suspected terrorists has grown to a staff of more than 350 people who analyze tens of thousands of calls a year. The “encounters,” as they are called—by Border Patrol officers; airlines; local, federal, and state law enforcement; the State Department—are vetted against names in the TSC’s comprehensive database.

Illustrating the center’s growth, a watch commander addressing about 150 TSC staff held up a manila envelope dated December 1, 2003, the day the center went operational. Contained in the flimsy worn file were the first day’s encounters.


“It all started with a piece of paper,” said watch commander Mike Ross.

Today, the list is updated daily and maintained in a state-of-the art database. TSC’s annual budget has increased significantly to accommodate the growing need—watch list records (which may include multiple aliases) increased from about 158,000 in 2004 to about 755,000 last year. TSC averages about 50 positive encounters a day, most at ports of entry.

Process used to resolve encounters with individuals on the Terrorist Watch List: At encounter, identifying information is entered into TSC database; TSC checks ID against Watch List database; if negative, the individual is cleared. If positive or inconclusive, TSC call center staff check identity and either clear or send ID information to FBI Counterterrorism Division, which assists agencies with response.

TSC Director Leonard Boyle distilled TSC’s mission to this: “Doing everything that can be done to keep the bad people out.” That includes continually refining the system to ensure that civil liberties are respected.

“We have succeeded in our primary mission of consolidating all the terrorist watch lists and creating a system to update the list every day by adding and removing records,” Boyle said. “We are now in the process of continuing to refine the list and improve its accuracy.”

The TSC was born of a need to connect the dots following the 9/11 attacks. On September 16, 2003, agencies maintaining their own records of suspected terrorists were ordered under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-6 to consolidate their lists into a single shared database, which would be administered at TSC by a combination of federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. At the anniversary event, staff recalled the early days of long hours, tight quarters, and cheap furniture bowing under the weight of bulky computers.

Hours are still long and space is tight, but it’s come a long way, according to Richard Kopel, TSC’s principal deputy director. He held in his hands a green notebook labeled “HOLES.” In it, staff once kept notes on what they might be missing. There are few gaps today, according to frequent audits and a 2007 report by the Government Accounting Office, which stated, “Use of the watch list has helped federal, state, and local screening and law enforcement officials obtain information to make better-informed decisions.”

Kopel reminded TSC’s staff of the privilege that comes with working in the intense round-the-clock environment.

“We get to do something that many Americans wish they could do…and that’s contribute in the fight against terrorism.”

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