Terrorist Screening Center fails to redress errors, audit says

The interagency Terrorist Screening Center, which maintains the nation's electronic records about various types of dangerous individuals, has failed to redress the technology flaws that have choked its systems with inaccurate, outdated and duplicate information as well as creating hazardous watch list gaps, Justice Department auditors said.

The scathing report from Justice's Inspector General cited the somewhat gloomier findings in its June 2005 analysis of the technology, business processes and overall effectiveness of the watch list center.

The TSC works alongside the FBI and intelligence community's National Counterterrorism Center, both of which nominate people for inclusion in the terrorist watch list, which resides on the Terrorist Screening Database.

Terrorism specialists at the FBI and the TSC review data submitted about individuals who are candidates for nomination as domestic terrorists, according to an agreed policy that is frequently circumvented, the report said. Meanwhile, the NCTC and the interagency center review comparable records for suspected international terrorists.

Law enforcement agencies at various levels of government can check the TSC's records about a person via telephone inquiries in some cases. Some federal agencies, such as the State Department's consular offices and the Customs and Border Protection arm of the Homeland Security Department, have access to TSC records via linked databases.

The TSDB's technology flaws begin with the fact that it is maintained on two separate database management systems that are supposed to contain identical information but don't, according to the IG investigators. The auditors found discrepancies in the number of files in each of the databases.

TSC maintains two databases to facilitate the import and export of data, according to the report. The center plans to upgrade its systems so it will be able to rely on a single database, the auditors wrote.

"Even a single omission of a suspected or known terrorist from the watch list is a serious matter," according to the auditors' report.

The terrorism center's quirky method for exporting watch list records to external databases accounted for part of the missing data problem, TSC officials told the IG investigators. In their initial checks, the auditors found discrepancies ranging from 18 records to 38 records between the two databases that together form the TSDB watch list.

Later in the audit, center staff members told IG investigators that they had identified 2,682 records that were not being exported to any screening database used by front-line federal personnel, such as immigration workers and consular officials.

As the TSC workers combed through the trove of mystery records, they found that 2,118 of them should not have been put on any watch list and should be removed from the system. During a subsequent manual review of the remaining 564 records, the TSC staff identified eight individuals who not been appropriately placed on the watch list and needed to be renominated for inclusion in the TSDB.

The screening center's leadership has known since the organization's inception in 2003 that much of the data it uses is unreliable, according to various reports and public statements by government officials.

The center's staff has combed through large parts of the data it inherited at first from other agencies, to eliminate "poison pen" data, among other inaccuracies. But the IG auditors found in their recent report that the TSC had not established a process for regularly reviewing the information in the database.

Center officials said they plan to launch a regular review process in the future, the auditors reported.

Additional problems with the TSC's technology that the auditors identified included:
  • Cumbersome FBI data handling practices that create unnecessary errors, anomalies and inconsistencies in the records;
  • The FBI practice of entering data about suspected terrorists into a downstream database, which prevents other agencies from reviewing the bureau's data;
  • Needless delays in entering data into the terrorist watch list, which cause a significant vulnerability to the integrity of the consolidated database;
  • Duplicate information problems with 6,262 records in the TSDB;
  • Delays in resolving data quality assurance problems that ranged up to 329 days, with an average processing time of 80 days (as of February 2007, TSC officials were working with 3,000 open quality assurance problems); and
  • Delays and inefficiencies in handling requests by specific people for correction or deletion of their watch list records.

The auditors stated that TSC's operations had improved significantly over the past two years, but that major technology and business process flaws hindered its effectiveness.

In a written response to the report, the FBI generally accepted the auditors' recommendations and described its evolving plans to improve TSC operations.

Wilson P. Dizard III writes for Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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