Intelligence Data and Terrorism: The Inherent Problem

Information   The primary entity within the United States Government responsible for collecting and organizing intelligence data concerning national and international counterterrorism efforts is the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is based in McLean, Virginia. The predecessor of the NCTC was the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), founded in May of 2003 by President George W. Bush as part of Executive Order 13354, granting “the highest priority to the detection, prevention, disruption, preemption, and mitigation of the effects of transnational terrorist activities against the territory, people, and interests of the United States of America.” The creation of the TTIC came on the realization in post 911 America that very little had delayed or prevented the tragic events initiated by al Qaeda, leading to the creation of an organization that brings terrorism experts together from the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon specifically for purpose of integrating available intelligence information. The name of the TTIC was changed to the National Counterterrorism Center as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.


This Illustration Pokes Fun at the Underpants Bomber
Photo credit: Mike Licht, / / CC BY

Utilizing various databases, NCTC is in charge of the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), which is the U. S. Government’s principle list of suspected or confirmed international terrorists. The list of names on the TIDE database skyrocketed between the years 2008 and 2013 from 540,000 to 875,000, due primarily to the increased use of the system by security entities “in the wake of the failed 2009 attack on a plane by ‘underpants bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Detroit.” These various security agencies use the TIDE database to build other pertinent information, such as the “no-fly list” that is also kept by NCTC. Various member organizations of the intelligence community contribute to the formation of TIDE, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency within the Department of Defense.


Was the Boston Marathon Bombing a Sign of Intelligence Failure?
Photo credit: Dillsnufus / / CC BY-NC-ND

The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center uses the classified information of TIDE to glean its Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), which is a terrorist watchlist containing over 400,000 unique names. On a daily basis, 1600 new recommendations are made for inclusion on the list, while 600 names are dropped and around 4800 entries are revised daily, based on updated intelligence information. In addition to the “no fly list,” there are 10 other screening organizations mentioned by Wikipedia that depend on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database:

  1. Selectee listDepartment of Homeland Security
  2. Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) – Department of Homeland Security
  3. National Automated Immigration Lookout System (NAILS) – Department of Homeland Security migrated to Treasury Enforcement Communication System (TECS)
  4. Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) – Department of State
  5. Criminal Justice Information Services Division Warrant Information – Department of Justice
  6. Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File (VGTOF) – Department of Justice
  7. Interpol Terrorism Watch ListDepartment of Justice
  8. Air Force Office of Special Investigations Top Ten Fugitive List – Department of Defense
  9. Automated Biometric Identification SystemDepartment of Defense
  10. Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification SystemDepartment of Justice

Funding for the FBI’s ability to screen and track suspected terrorists and terrorist organizations has grown rapidly since the 911 attacks, and information from such efforts is made available to federal, state, local and Native American tribal law enforcement entities – as well as to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Transportation Security Administration.

Although the above-described system of identifying suspected terrorists and terrorist organizations is impressive, the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 has revealed an inherent and alarming weakness. Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name had been added to the TIDE list of suspected terrorists in 2011, following Russian reports that he had become involved in radical Islamic activities. Following his inclusion in the TIDE system, his name also came under the scrutiny of the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection Bureau – and his name received an additional flag of concern when he left the United States to visit Russia in January of 2012. However, his name automatically received a downgraded status in the database upon his return from Russia six months later – in essence falling through the cracks of investigative efforts. Officials within the system point out “that simply being listed in TIDE is not enough to justify special attention by law enforcement, and that Tsarnaev was not known to be an active threat.” This has led to renewed complaints from some that TIDE is too “large and vague,” meaning that the immense size of the collected data inhibits the very benefits it hopes to provide. One of those vocalizing her concern over this matter is Karen Joy Greenberg, the Director of the Center for National Security and noted author on the subject of terrorism and the Guantanamo Bay detention center. A professor at the Fordham University School of Law, Greenberg cautions that “what you want is more focus, not less focus. It can’t be just about quantity. It has to be about specificity.” As paradoxical as it might seem, the success of concerted efforts in identifying potential terrorists might be the new “intelligence failure,” since the overwhelming growth of the database could make it too difficult to extract the more specific information necessary in pinpointing a real threat to national security. In other words, the crucial information could be awash in a “sea of data” and difficult to identify – a problem similar to the needle in a haystack. Please don’t overlook the link below because your signature is needed to advance the petition to which this website is dedicated.

You can help promote the establishment of a monument dedicated to all American victims of terrorism, whether they died at home or abroad, by clicking the link above and signing the petition. Nothing is asked but your signature for a good cause.

About jrcclark

On October 2, 2001, scarcely one month after the horrors of 911, Representative Jim Turner of Texas introduced H. R. 2982 to the House of Representatives, calling for “the establishment of a memorial to victims who died as a result of terrorist acts against the United States or its people, at home or abroad.” The resolution was amended by the Committee on Resources in June of 2002 and eventually approved on September 25, 2002 on a “motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill.” It was sent to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, but it has languished there ever since – in effect dead and going nowhere. In 2008, this Senate Committee considered making Dark Elegy, the work of a New York sculptor who lost a son in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as the monument called for in H. R. 2982. However, the committee turned down the touching and thought-provoking sculptures of Suse Ellen Lowenstein – on the grounds that “…as compelling and impressive a proposal as has been made for the memorial in question, that we believe that, for the time being, that it relates to a very specific incident and should be treated as such rather than as a generic monument to victims of terrorism for all time.” Today the resolution seems forgotten, and it is the purpose of this website to promote a petition to the House of Representatives and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, requesting that H. R. 2982 be reconsidered and revisited.
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1 Response to Intelligence Data and Terrorism: The Inherent Problem

  1. Cynthia Weber says:

    When will we ever learn?

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