CATF Reports Nov. 10, 2016, 3:11pm


The U.S. system designed to identify and list known or suspected terrorists is at the heart of the country’s national security and counterterrorism efforts. Developed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. security regime constitutes an essential, yet complex, system to detect, inspect, and screen domestic and foreign terrorists and restrict their movements. This effort relies on a number of valuable databases, particularly the Terrorist Screening Database, that are accessible to a wide variety of federal agencies tasked with the daily assignment of securing the U.S. from terrorist threats. The recently released Congressional Research Service report provides new, clear-cut insight into the interworking of U.S. terrorist screening in the post 9/11 era.  

The consequences of the tragic 9/11 attacks on American daily life were extensive. After years of investigations, U.S. counterterrorism efforts underwent a momentous change designed to, among other things, increase communication and information sharing among federal agencies. The Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), widely referred to as the “terrorist watchlist”, lies at the foundation of the federal government’s revamped efforts to identify and share information regarding individuals who may pose terrorism-related threats to the United States. The database, which contains hundreds of thousands of biographic identities, is managed by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), a multi-agency organization created to consolidate separate federal watchlist efforts into the widely accessible TSDB. The contents of the TSDB are shared with U.S. law enforcement and security agencies conducting background checks, reviewing passport and visa applicants, and interacting with travelers at U.S. border crossings.

While each federal agency has a unique responsibility, distinct practices, and often its own watchlist database, the federal watchlisting regimen is centered on the TSDB and its three processes: nomination, verification, and screening. During the nomination process, “originators” at U.S. government agencies analyze raw information to uncover the identities of people suspected of involvement in terrorist activity. Originators, who may work in intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, U.S. embassies or consulates, nominate individuals as a “known terrorist” or “suspected terrorist” based on the person’s record.

All nominated identities then undergo a vetting process conducted by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) or the FBI, depending on whether the suspected individual is a U.S. or foreign national, with final verification from the TSC. In order for a nomination to be included in the TSDB, there must be reasonable suspicion and a minimum amount of identifying information, at least a last name and one additional piece of identifying information such as a date of birth). The vast majority of nominations, however, are ultimately included in the TSDB.

Lastly, the collected information is made actionable by exporting the material to federal agencies authorized to conduct terrorist screenings. The five major U.S. government agencies on the receiving end of a customized portion of the TSDB are the Department of State (DOS), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the FBI, and the Department of Defense (DOD). At each of these agencies, a “screener” utilizes the TSDB information in order to check the identities of the individuals they encounter in their daily work. For example, Department of State consular officers draw on TSDB information for passport and visa screening while TSA employees compare passenger records from the TSDB with the No Fly List in order to screen airplane passengers. In all, more than 1 billion queries are made against TSDB information every year.

The TSDB is also used by federal agencies to prevent the international movement of suspected or known terrorists by screening foreign applicants for U.S. visas, screening those who enter via the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and blanket screening all air travelers. Department of State consular officers, required to inspect the records of all visa applicants, utilize the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) database, which is composed of records from a number of other agencies including a subset of the TSDB, in their queries. Visitors from one of 38 countries eligible to enter the U.S. without visas, according to the VWP, are vetted by CBD through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) that checks the individuals against the TSDB. In responding to concerns over terrorists entering the U.S. from VWP countries, primarily concentrated in Europe, the information collected by ESTA was expanded.

Unfortunately, it is often in the wake of tragedies that we learn to take the necessary preventative steps. In the case of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, particularly terrorist watchlists and databases used for screening, substantial steps have been made since the 9/11 attacks. Today, the nomination, verification and screening of individuals using the TSDB watchlist alongside a number of agency-specific databases is a cooperative and efficient process involving a number of government agencies. While there will likely always remain room for increased inter-agency communication and cooperation, the U.S. security watchlist centered on the TSDB constitutes a significant progression from the disjointed pre 9/11 watchlist system.

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