Congress Finds Critical Failures Affecting Terror Watch List

By Joseph Straw

A stunning report from a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology reports an “insurmountable” technical problem at the unit responsible for the country’s terrorist watch list, which one lawmaker says could blind officials to terrorist threats.

The panel’s investigation examined a program dubbed Railhead, operated by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), intended to enhance NCTC’s primary terrorism database called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Ennvironment (TIDE), while aiding accessibility via classified and non-classified access portals.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal Friday, Siobhan Gorman reports that changes left government officials unable to conduct key-word searches of the database, while the committee reports that “tens of thousands of potentially vital CIA messages flowing into NCTC have not been properly processed, reviewed or included” in TIDE.

Further, intelligence such as data regarding items and information authorities find in suspect individuals’ possession, called “pocket litter” by intelligence officials, could not be retained in data migration, Gorman writes.

Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), chair of the panel’s Oversight Subcommittee, said Railhead has been “plagued by technical design and development errors, basic management blunders and poor government oversight.”

“The program not only can’t connect the dots, it can’t find the dots,” Miller said.

The $500,000 Railhead program was built after 9-11 by Lockheed Martin and is currently maintained under contract by Boeing and SRI International for NCTC, which is a partnership of agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, and the CIA.

This year civil libertarians led by the ACLU renewed criticism of the national watch lis,t citing its growth to 1 million names and aliases associated with roughly 400,000 individuals internationally. They argue first that the watch list approach is ineffective, and second that it spurs undue scrutiny of innocent people who have names identical to others on the list.

In past years lawmakers including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and Catherine Stevens, wife of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), were held at airport check-in because their names appeared on watch lists. Catherine Stevens was flagged due to confusion with pop star Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.

This week commercial airline pilot and Gulf War veteran Erich Scherfenof of Pennsylvania sued the federal government to force removal of his name from the terrorist watch list, where he says it will cost him his career. Scherfenof, a convert to Islam, is married to a Pakistani immigrant who distributes educational materials on their religion.


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