Inside the Terrorist Screening Center The Terrorist Watch List that was formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is the responsibility of the Terrorist Screening Center, which is run by the FBI. The Center compiles the watch list and tracks suspected terrorists in the United States. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is the first journalist ever permitted inside the 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 came out after the 9/11 attacks is the responsibility of the Terrorist Screening Center. The center is run by the FBI and it compiles the list and tracks suspected terrorists in this country.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was the first journalist allowed into the center. Here's her report.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Before they let me visit the Terrorist Screening Center, or TSC, I had to make some promises. One is not to tell you where the center is, aside from saying it is in a secure location in northern Virginia.

I wasn't allowed to record the analysts that worked 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 do their work, my escort had 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.

Unidentified Man: Uncleared.

TEMPLE-RASTON: 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 room switches to a non-descript picture of the center's logo. Flat screens show high-definition pictures of flowers and landscapes. Normally the screen at the front will display a large map of the United States sprinkled with dots, each dot representing the whereabouts of a terrorist or suspected terrorist in the continental U.S.

If I weren't in the room, it would look like the spy center in the movie "Patriot Games."

Mr. MIKE ROSS (Watch Commander, Terrorist Screening Center): So we pretty much are the one-stop-shopping mechanism for any kind of a terrorist type of an encounter.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Watch Commander Mike Ross. He says the terrorist locator dots on the map change color, depending on how long it has been since a local law enforcement officer called in a positive encounter or a hit.

If you've ever wondered when you get pulled over in a traffic stop if your name is being fed into a terrorist database, rest assured that it is. When the police officer puts your name and driver's license into his computer, he is linking up to the TSC.

Mr. ROSS: He would actually be accessing a computer database where we house the list of known or appropriately suspected terrorists. That hit would come back on his print-out sheet and it would say you may have encountered a known or suspected terrorist; call the Terrorist Screening Center.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When the officer calls, he is connected to an analyst who often times already knows the suspect is in the area. It could be a neighborhood where the suspect works or lives. And if a lot of calls come in from a particular area, that could be signaling something else - a meeting of some sort, 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.

Mr. LEORNARD BOYLE (Director, Terrorist Screening Center): The information walls are down to the extent they possibly can be. We truly have moved into a new environment. We have moved from a need-to-know mindset to an obligation-to-share mindset.

TEMPLE-RASTON: TSC won't say how big the watchlist is, but most unofficial estimates put the total at several hundred thousand people, and the number of hits from it is growing. In 2004, the year the TSC opened its doors, it had some 5,400 hits. This year, the FBI expects more than 22,000. That concerns the senior counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, David Sobel.

Mr. DAVID SOBEL (Electronic Frontier Foundation): The bottom-line problem is the government since 9/11 has gotten into the business of making lists of suspicious people without much discussion of what the criteria are for putting people's names on these list or how affected people might get some recourse and get their names off if they have been mistakenly put on such a list.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Theoretically, the names go on the watch list based on rigorous - but classified - criteria. Boyle says the TSC won't tell anyone whether they are actually on the list, but they have set up a redress unit to help people who say they have been mistakenly included.

Mr. BOYLE: What we can do for people is if in fact they are being misidentified, we can provide them information to help them to try to avoid or minimize the amount of inconvenience that they face.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Boyle says the TSC will 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 that the terrorists they are tracking are really terrorists.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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