Big Brother Has A Big Database

The Washington Post reports today that, in the five and one-half years since the September 11th attacks, the Federal Government has amassed a huge database of information as part of the War on Terror:

Each day, thousands of pieces of intelligence information from around the world — field reports, captured documents, news from foreign allies and sometimes idle gossip — arrive in a computer-filled office in McLean, where analysts feed them into the nation’s central list of terrorists and terrorism suspects.

Called TIDE, for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, the list is a storehouse for data about individuals that the intelligence community believes might harm the United States. It is the wellspring for watch lists distributed to airlines, law enforcement, border posts and U.S. consulates, created to close one of the key intelligence gaps revealed after Sept. 11, 2001: the failure of federal agencies to share what they knew about al-Qaeda operatives.

But in addressing one problem, TIDE has spawned others. Ballooning from fewer than 100,000 files in 2003 to about 435,000, the growing database threatens to overwhelm the people who manage it. “The single biggest worry that I have is long-term quality control,” said Russ Travers, in charge of TIDE at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean. “Where am I going to be, where is my successor going to be, five years down the road?”

It is the TIDE database that is the source of the no-fly and watch lists that have been a part of American aviation travel since planes started flying again after 9/11; watch lists which have been a continual sources of frustration for ordinary Americans who suddenly find their names on a list of suspected threats to airline safety:

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said last year that his wife had been delayed repeatedly while airlines queried whether Catherine Stevens was the watch-listed Cat Stevens. The listing referred to the Britain-based pop singer who converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. The reason Islam is not allowed to fly to the United States is secret.

Of course it is. What remains unanswered is why anyone with a brain would think that the wife of a U.S. Senator could be connected in any way to a British pop singer who converted to Islam and wears a beard and Muslim clothing. Sometimes, though, the result of being misidentified as a terrorist aren’t amusing:

So is the reason Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, remains on the State Department’s consular watch list. Detained in New York while en route to Montreal in 2002, Arar was sent by the U.S. government to a year of imprisonment in Syria. Canada, the source of the initial information about Arar, cleared him of all terrorism allegations last September — three years after his release — and has since authorized $9 million in compensation.

Of course, it’s not surprising when you think for a few seconds about just how these lists are created:

Every night at 10, TIDE dumps an unclassified version of that day’s harvest — names, dates of birth, countries of origin and passport information — into a database belonging to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. TIDE’s most sensitive information is not included. The FBI adds data about U.S. suspects with no international ties for a combined daily total of 1,000 to 1,500 new names.

Between 5 and 6 a.m., a shift of 24 analysts drawn from the agencies that use watch lists begins a new winnowing process at the center’s Crystal City office. The analysts have access to case files at TIDE and the original intelligence sources, said the center’s acting director, Rick Kopel.

Decisions on what to add to the Terrorist Screening Center master list are made by midafternoon. The bar is higher than TIDE’s; total listings were about 235,000 names as of last fall, according to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. The bar is then raised again as agencies decide which names to put on their own watch lists: the Transportation Security Administration’s “no-fly” and “selectee” lists for airlines; Consular Lookout and Support System at the State Department; the Interagency Border and Inspection System at the Department of Homeland Security; and the Justice Department’s National Crime Information Center. The criteria each agency use are classified, Kopel said.

The decision on who to add and who to delete is, it seems, entirely arbitrary. Each agency has it’s own rules and there are no standards to assist an individual analyst in deciding whether to add or delete a name. In the end, whether or not you end up on a watch list may depend on the gut feeling of a guy sitting in an office building in Arlington County, Virginia at five o’clock in the morning.

Sounds like a system destined not to work.

  • Brad Warbiany

    I’ll tell you one thing, though… It’s stories like this that make me glad I have a unique last name. It cuts down the chance that I’ll get confused for any of the people on those lists…

  • Doug Mataconis


    It’s stories like this that make me glad I have a unique last name.

    You and me both

  • Adam Selene

    I have a co-worker with very common first and last names. Something like John Smith. Not quite that, but close enough. It turns out that there is an IRA terrorist with the same name on the “most wanted” and “no fly” lists.

    In our line of work, both of us fly very frequently. He always has to prove he is not the Irish “John Smith” at the airport. No matter how many times he has tried to permanently prove it to the .GOV, he has never been able to do so. He loses an additional 30 minutes, or more, to officious stupidity in the airport every time he flies. Which is at least once a week. He is paid about $100/hour if you translate his salary to an hourly wage. Multiply that by the 50, or so, round trips he makes a year and figure out the economic loss to our company. Multiply that many hundreds, even thousands, of cases of such stupidity.

  • uhm

    Why do we need this we have new X-ray machines for Airports that reveal everything :o

  • uhm

    Cat Stevens is a Salafis. What is he doing outside of Guantanamo Bay?