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Inside the Terrorist Screening Center

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Inside the Terrorist Screening Center

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Inside the Terrorist Screening Center

Inside the Terrorist Screening Center

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The Terrorist Watch List that was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is the responsibility of the Terrorist Screening Center. The Center, run by the FBI, compiles the watch list and tracks suspected terrorists in the United States. Dina Temple-Raston is the first journalist ever allowed inside the center.

To visit the Terrorist Screening Center, you have to make some promises. The first is not to divulge where the center is — aside from saying it is in a secure location in Northern Virginia. A reporter has never been allowed inside the center, and NPR was not allowed to record the analysts who work there, in case someone said something that was classified.

To get into the small, top-secret room where about 50 analysts from the FBI, Immigration and other agencies work, my escort has to punch a code into a small keypad and pull open a heavy steel door. He announces my presence by shouting a single word: "Uncleared."

With that signal, the flat screens in the cubicles around the room go dark. A giant, interactive map on a pull-down screen at the front of the office space switches to a nondescript picture of the center's logo. Flat screens show high-definition images of flowers and landscapes. Normally, the screen at the front of the office displays a large map of the United States sprinkled with dots, each dot representing the whereabouts of a terrorist or suspected terrorist in the continental United States. If I weren't in the room, it would look like the spy center in the movie Patriot Games.

"We pretty much are the one-stop-shop mechanism for any kind of terrorist encounter," Watch Commander Mike Ross says.

He says the terrorist-locator dots on the map in the room change color depending on how long it has been since a local law enforcement officer called in a positive encounter, or "hit." If you have ever wondered when you get pulled over in a traffic stop whether your name is being fed into a terrorist database, rest assured — it is. When the police officer puts your name and driver's license into his computer, he is linking to the TSC.

"The police officer would actually be accessing a computer database where we house the list of known or appropriately suspected terrorists," Ross says. "That hit would come back on his sheet, and it would say, 'You may have encountered a known or suspected terrorist; call the Terrorist Screening Center.' "

When the officer calls, he is connected to an analyst who often already knows the suspect is in the area. It could be a neighborhood where the suspect works or lives. If a lot of calls come in from a particular area, that could be signaling something as well — a meeting of some sort, for example, and that would be important to know. The Center's director, Leonard Boyle, says the TSC fields several hundred calls a week and then sends the information to the intelligence community.

That, of course, has been the brickbat in the fight against terrorism — the idea that one part of the intelligence community knew something another part didn't know might have contributed to the Sept. 11 attacks. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Ziad Samir Jarrah, was given a speeding ticket in Maryland two days before the attacks. He was going 95 mph. The theory is that if the TSC was around then, he would not have been permitted to leave with a ticket in his back pocket.

"The information walls are down to the extent they can be," Boyle says. "We have moved from a need-to-know mindset to an obligation-to-share mindset."

Share within the community, that is. Average Americans have a dearth of information about the watchlist. For example, the TSC won't say how big it actually is. Most informed unofficial estimates put the total at several hundred thousand people.

What is more certain is the number of hits the TSC gets from the list and its link with local law enforcement. In 2004, the year the TSC opened its doors, it had some 5,400 hits. This year, the FBI expects to log more than 22,000.

Those kinds of numbers worry civil liberties advocates like David Sobel, the senior counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"The bottom-line problem is the government since 9-11 has gotten into the business of making lists of suspicious people," he says. "This has happened without much discussion of the criteria or how affected people might get some recourse and get their names off if they mistakenly have been put on such a list."

Theorectically, the names that go on the watch list are put there based on rigorous — but classified — criteria. Boyle says the TSC won't tell anyone whether they are on the list, but it has set up a redress unit to help people who say they have been mistakenly included.

"What we can do for people if they are being misidentified — we can give them information to help them avoid or minimize the inconvenience that they face," he says.

Boyle says the TSC intends to go further later this month. Specific high-ranking officials in various agencies will be given responsibility for taking care of these cases. He says that will create more accountability, help find errors, and make sure the terrorists they are tracking are really terrorists.

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