What are They Thinking? The Terrorism Watch List(s)

What are They Thinking? The Terrorism Watch List(s)

After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, we learned that the US did not maintain a single terrorism watch list. Instead, multiple agencies maintained multiple lists, which allowed terrorists to slip through the cracks between them. After 9/11, we learned that the US still did not have a single watch list. The WSJ ($) reports today that we still don’t have a unified, up-to-date watch list: “U.S. agencies are continuing to work from at least 12 different, sometimes incompatible, often uncoordinated and technologically archaic databases.” As a result, the much bally-hooed canceling of those Air France flights turns out to have been more of an embarrassment than an intelligence triumph:

According to French officials, what they uncovered wasn't an international terrorist plot, but a huge case of mistaken identities: one name matching that of the leader of a Tunisian-based terror group turned out to be that of a child. Another “terrorist” was a Welsh insurance agent. Another was an elderly Chinese woman who once ran a restaurant in Paris. The remaining three were French citizens. Extensive interrogations in the presence of officials from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration revealed nothing sinister, French officials said. …

[FBI agents] said that had a single database system been developed as envisioned, it might have provided critical pieces of intelligence and biographical information, and could have potentially spared the U.S. the embarrassment of confusing a terrorist leader with a small child.

I don't understand why this isn't a bigger story. Creating a single, up-to-date watch list seems like such a basic precaution. Why is it taking so long? According to the Journal, one is supposed to be in the works at the Terrorist Screening Center, but is still months or even years (!) away from completion:

According to FBI officials and congressional staff recently briefed … on TSC operations, the center has yet to make any headway integrating all the lists. Problems ranged from the lack of a dedicated budget to ongoing failures to obtain the cooperation of several agencies to share their information with the center.

The blogosphere is sometimes credited with forcing the media to pay attention to stories like Trent Lott's comments about Strom Thurmond. If those of us in the blogosphere wanted to do something really useful, however, we would be demanding that the Administration and Congress get off their collective duffs and get this job done.  [ProfessorBainbridge.com]

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