The master list the federal government keeps of known and suspected terrorists, from which other government agencies derive their own watch lists, already hundreds of thousands of names large, is growing out of control, filling with “fragmentary,” “inconsistent” and “sometimes just flat-out wrong” information, a top counterterrorism official said.
The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, described as “one-stop shopping” for federal watchlisting, collects scraps of intelligence from all across the government, and disseminates it to other government agencies for them to build their own watch lists. TIDE is the database created after 9/11 to centralize information about known and suspected terrorists. It was based on its predecessor, known as TIPOFF, a State Department terrorism database, and is run out of the new National Counterterrorism Center.
after 9/11 to centralize information about known and suspected terrorists. It was based on its predecessor, known as TIPOFF, a State Department terrorism database, and is run out of the new National Counterterrorism Center.Unlike most other government databases, TIDE mixes records on U.S. citizens with records on aliens. And unlike its predecessor, TIDE can store biometric information such as fingerprints and DNA records.
Unclassified portions of the TIDE database are used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center as well as the Transportation Security Administration for its no-fly list and selectee list, as well as many other government agencies. Each agency decides what criteria to use to accept a name from TIDE, which sets a very low bar on what information it will accept.
And therein lies the problem. As anyone who is familiar with computers will tell you, “Garbage in, garbage out.” And so, you get delayed at the airport for hours while people around you think you’re some kind of terrorist, because somebody put bad information into a computer. I warned you.
Sunday’s Washington Post has an excellent description of the TIDE database, how it works, and how it fails.
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?”
TIDE has also created concerns about secrecy, errors and privacy. The list marks the first time foreigners and U.S. citizens are combined in an intelligence database. The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it. At any stage, the process can lead to “horror stories” of mixed-up names and unconfirmed information, Travers acknowledged.
TIDE is a vacuum cleaner for both proven and unproven information, and its managers disclaim responsibility for how other agencies use the data. “What’s the alternative?” Travers said. “I work under the assumption that we’re never going to have perfect information – fingerprints, DNA – on 6 billion people across the planet. . . . If someone actually has a better idea, I’m all ears.” – Washington Post
I have a better idea. Stop creating terrorists in the first place. Stop getting involved in other people’s business. Stop arming the terrorists. Stop funding them. Return America’s foreign policy to what it was supposed to be all along, in the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.”
You may call that unrealistic, but you do so without reason. It’s unrealistic to think the U.S. can win an ill-defined “war on terror” without turning into the sort of authoritarian state that we all used to point at and decry its horrors. Look around. It’s not just around the corner anymore; the U.S. has already become that police state. It’s unrealistic to think any foreign policy other than Jefferson’s will restore the United States to the grand old republic we all were told we lived in.