The U.S. Terrorist Database

Interesting article about the terrorist database: Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE).

It's huge:

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?"

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.

Mostly the article tells you things you already know: the list is riddled with errors, and there's no defined process for getting on or off the list. But the most surreal quote is at the end, from Rick Kopel, the center's acting director:

The center came in for ridicule last year when CBS's "60 Minutes" noted that 14 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were listed -- five years after their deaths. Kopel defended the listings, saying that "we know for a fact that these people will use names that they believe we are not going to list because they're out of circulation -- either because they're dead or incarcerated. . . . It's not willy-nilly. Every name on the list, there's a reason that it's on there."

Get that? There's someone who deliberately puts wrong names on the list because they think the terrorists might use aliases, and they want to catch them. Given that reasoning, wouldn't you want to put the entire phone book on the list?

Posted on March 26, 2007 at 2:05 PM • 35 Comments

Comments

RichMarch 26, 2007 2:16 PM

"wouldn't you want to put the entire phone book on the list?"

It would seem that list would be about as useful.

Brandon CorfmanMarch 26, 2007 2:34 PM

People say a lot of silly things when they're put on the defensive.

Of course, what's sillier -- Kopel's quote or the fact that he talked to 60 Minutes in the first place? I certainly wouldn't speak to them about anything, given a choice; they certainly have the power to make you look like a buffoon.

VirchullMarch 26, 2007 2:45 PM

No criteria to put a name on the list, or to take it off ?? Its the hallmark signature of the Bush administration - poor management.

I'd like them to add Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Will they do it?

Daniel-FMarch 26, 2007 3:07 PM

See also this book:

Unsafe at Any Altitude
Failed Terrorism Investigations, Scapegoating 9/11,
and the Shocking Truth about Aviation Security Today
Susan B. Trento and Joseph J. Trento
As seen on 60 Minutes
http://unsafeatanyaltitude.com/index.php

I saw these authors on CSPAN2 BookTV awhile back. Very interesting about the list and what is really going on the whole industry...CYA. Good luck - we all need it.

MikeMarch 26, 2007 3:23 PM

I think the scariest part of that report is this:
[The agent might ask the airlines about the passenger's eye color, height or defining marks, Kopel said. "We'll say, 'Does he have any rings on his left hand?' and they'll say, 'Uh, he doesn't have a left hand.' Okay. We know that [the listed person] lost his left hand making a bomb."]

Ok, why does the fact that a person who doesn't have a left hand mean he lost it making a bomb. I know that it is an example, but that kind of thinking (even for an example) is scary. The person could have just as easy lost their left hand in an snowblower accident. With the kind of thinking Kopel describes, no wonder the database is littered with errors.

Joe PattersonMarch 26, 2007 3:25 PM

Ok.... So the reason those 14 dead hijackers are on the list is that their names might be used again... Flaky reasoning, but if you accept it as valid, can you tell me this: Why aren't the other 5 of the 19 on the list? Are they that much deader?

leftyMarch 26, 2007 3:29 PM

So someone who lost their left hand must have always lost it because they were making a bomb? Does that mean that all the bomb makers are left handed? So put all the left handed people on the list, they might all be making bombs...

KorayMarch 26, 2007 3:37 PM

What if you burn your hand while making a bomb? Imagine all kinds of things that may leave a mark. If you have any of those marks, then you must have been making bombs.

Rich GibbsMarch 26, 2007 3:58 PM

"Given that reasoning, wouldn't you want to put the entire phone book on the list?"

Wait, you just don't get it. If you put the whole phone book on, there would be people that were *alive* on there. Clearly, that's a waste of resources, since the terrorists would only use the names of dead people. They're really evil that way.

In all seriousness, I'm not sure I'd use the word "reasoning" in this context. The surreal vision I have is of DHS teams fanning out to graveyards across the world collecting names. Maybe they can pass a law requiring a national real-time registry of death certificates. Or we can require everyone, as a condition of getting a "Real ID", to list the names of all the dead people they know.

Matthew SkalaMarch 26, 2007 4:00 PM

I'm pretty sure the logic was intended to go the other way - we *already* know that the person we're interested in lost his hand making a bomb, so we ask the airline about rings on that hand to find out if it's the same person. Because we're not allowed to say "The person we're interested in is missing a hand, is that him?" which would reveal secret information about the extent of our knowledge.

I hope and believe that even senior US intelligence agents aren't stupid enough to do "the airline says that someone of the same name as our suspect is missing a hand, therefore our suspect lost his hand making a bomb."

MicahMarch 26, 2007 4:03 PM

That obviously isn't the real list. The real list is properly maintained with a crack database management team, running on the latest hardware with a group of investigative personnel assigned to keep it up to date 24/7. This list only has 40,000 names of the most dangerous individuals which is cross-checked with top secret information from a network of informants within the NSA, FBI, and Homeland Security. After that, it's spot-checked by Bruce Schneier himself. Everything is fine.

AnonymousMarch 26, 2007 4:55 PM

I think it is important to have all politicians on the list. If terrorists know that politicians won't be on the list, it is an easy matter to use their names (since they are publically listed) and avoid checks.
I am sure all politicians are willing to undergo secondary screening every single time they fly, in order to protect the country.

quincunxMarch 26, 2007 5:49 PM

I recommend everyone get on the list, so that it can be made useless ASAP.

"I am sure all politicians are willing to undergo secondary screening every single time they fly, in order to protect the country."

Why? Some of them were opposed to fascism from the start. One of them even told the whole house that they have been NEOCON-NED.

Another one of them is well aware of the fact that 9/11 was an inside job!

I say only those that vote in fascist unison should be put on the list.

GeorgeMarch 26, 2007 9:34 PM

It's not willy-nilly. Every name on the list, there's a reason that it's on there.

Yes, there's a reason. It may not be a good reason. It may not be a useful reason. It may not be a verifiable reason. It may not be comprehensible to anyone other than the agent who made the necessarily classified decision to place the name on the list. But still there's a reason for every name on the list. You will never know that reason, as it is information that is necessarily classified to avoid aiding the enemy. But if you're a patriotic American you must have complete trust and confidence that whatever we do in secret is absolutely necessary for Victory against unspeakable Evil in the Global War On Terror. God bless America, and Viva Bush!

Geoff LaneMarch 27, 2007 12:53 AM

So, how many actual terrorists has this list successfully detected and resulted in arrest, prosecution, conviction and imprisonment?

1000, 30, 10, 3, 1, none?

Deterence in the suicide bomber world is NOT success. As has been described here often, suicide bombers work to a different level of threat to ordinary criminals.

supersnailMarch 27, 2007 3:23 AM

They have totally failed to understand the effects of scaling data to larger and larger volumes.

It is counter intuative after all "bigger is better".
In a small group like a family first nales work just fine, if there is a "collision" then there is usually an easily available alias like "Dad" available.
I larger groups like schools first names are no longer good enough you have to use both names and even then "collisions" are pretty common (I shared a primary class with someone who had the same first and last names as me) but people get by because there are formal intoductions and everybody knows each other.

So the conclusion must be that for populations greater than 300 names are problematic.

All real world systems with use Social Security numbers, account numbers etc. to uniquely identify people in tacit recognition that names are basicly useless as unique identifiers outside small social groups.

So here we have a database containing more than 100,000 names, and, these people have a vested interest in not being recognised.

All the have to do is use thier local cultural equivalent of "John Smith" and they are immune to searches in such databases.

As an aside these guys tend to get thier aliases picked for them, either as a matter fo convienence - documents are already available in a particular name, some collabarator is willing to swear someone is thier "nephew" etc., or, at least in the case of the IRA a pool of fake identities complete with credit history, employment history etc. was maintained over long periods and identities were assigned as required.

So the whole thing is money down the drain.

C GomezMarch 27, 2007 7:42 AM

A waste that no one in Congress seems intent on stopping. It's not a party issue. It's a security issue. Unfortunately, many people not trained in security or critical thinking (which includes voters and therefore the Congress they elect) do not realize that storing a name buys you nothing in terms of security.

If there really is a highly organized terrorist club out there, they simply wouldn't use any name on the list.

Of course, if there is such a club, then the United States has stumbled onto doing something right, because they've been utter failures for five and a half years. Maybe they're dead, or have never been highly organized.

In this case, there's no specific person to watch. Then you have to secure yourselves against unknown attacks. Scary, but possible.

Dave AronsonMarch 27, 2007 7:43 AM

@supersnail: No, the "John Smith"-alikes are not immune. You are making the mistake of thinking that the people who run the database have any interest at all in efficiency, effectiveness, etc. What happens instead is that everyone *else* with the same name, is now subject to the hassles of being on the list.

Mr WMarch 27, 2007 8:57 AM

Quote from the article:
"Kopel said the agent never tells the airline whether the person trying to board is the suspect. The airlines decide whether to allow the customer to fly."

So the final decision is taken by the people with the least information? You couldn't devise a more stupid system if you tried...

FPMarch 27, 2007 9:21 AM

It's also wonderful that they keep the names of once-suspected, since-cleared citizens on the list, as in the case of Maher Arar.

While the article says that the reason is secret, we can assume that it is along the lines of, "being falsely imprisoned and tortured might have radicalized him."

It's the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. If we suspect everyone of being a danger to society, we will be.

GeorgeMarch 27, 2007 10:41 AM

"While the article says that the reason is secret, we can assume that it is along the lines of, 'being falsely imprisoned and tortured might have radicalized him.'"

In the case of Arar (the Canadian mistakenly "rendered" to Syria for unproductive torture), I suspect the Authorities' thinking goes like this:

"Arar inadvertently obtained highly classified information about American interrogation methods vital to the Global War On Terror. Having been released after an unproductive interrogation, he now has a lifetime obligation to the United States to protect the classified information he possesses by sequestering himself in some obscure corner of Nunavut, quietly rebuilding his life, and never speaking to anyone about his classified experience.

Rather than honoring this obligation to the United States, he has not only disclosed it to a foreign government and to the world press but has attempted to use the United States judicial system to extort unwarranted "compensation" for what he claims is an error! We can only be thankful to God that the loyal patriotic judge in his case recognized the grave harm such a case would cause the War effort, and immediately threw it out before more vital secrets were revealed.

By his wanton disregard of his obligation to protect vital American interests, and his selfish disregard for national security, Arar has conclusively proved himself a dangerous enemy of the United States. Keeping him on the No-Fly List is the least we can do to protect the Homeland from the grave threat he represents.

And, by the way, we've sent a classified memo to the commanders of all our secret alternative interrogation centers around the world. It directs that from this time forward, any detainees whose alternative interrogation has proven unproductive shall be administratively terminated and disposed of according to secure protocol rather than being released. That will avoid problems like Arar in the future. God bless America and Viva Bush!"

anonymous cowardMarch 27, 2007 1:16 PM

---------------------------
Ok.... So the reason those 14 dead hijackers are on the list is that their names might be used again... Flaky reasoning, but if you accept it as valid, can you tell me this: Why aren't the other 5 of the 19 on the list? Are they that much deader?
---------------------------

nope, but the answer is really simple:

the whole list depends on the assumption that names are unique identifiers. otherwise using names would make no sense.

so if a terrorist would try to use a name already in use by some other person the universe would throw an exception.

so when someone dies, someone else could take his name, because that person got moved to "dead".

the 5 names not on the lists have already been reassigned to new persons, so they can no longer be taken on by someone else.

;)

Is it November 2008 yet?March 27, 2007 1:19 PM

Perhaps it's a cunning ploy by DHS: this will surely incapacitate the terrorists.

Think about it: the bad guys will be so busy laughing their asses off at our incompetence that they won't be able to do any actual bad stuff to us.

Not that they need to, the Bush "administration" is doing a fine job of harming the nation with moronic schemes like this one.

jMarch 27, 2007 2:35 PM

"Get that? There's someone who deliberately puts wrong names on the list because they think the terrorists might use aliases, and they want to catch them. Given that reasoning, wouldn't you want to put the entire phone book on the list?"

No, go to the library and put all the names of fictitious characters from all the recent fiction published in the US on the list. What a great source of aliases that is.

jMarch 27, 2007 2:37 PM

"Ok.... So the reason those 14 dead hijackers are on the list is that their names might be used again... Flaky reasoning, but if you accept it as valid, can you tell me this: Why aren't the other 5 of the 19 on the list? Are they that much deader?"

Maybe the fourteen are the big heroes and "Intelligence" has learned that the names have been retired.

Check the rafters of the Terrorist Hall of Fame for bomb-vests.

Terry ClothMarch 27, 2007 7:47 PM

@Anonymous at March 26, 2007 04:55 PM:
I think it is important to have all politicians on the list.

They've made a start: Ted Kennedy and Georgia Representative John Lewis (D-5) are on the list:

http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0408/20/...

Note particularly that both are noted civil-rights advocates.

P.S.: Anonymous at March 26, 2007 04:55 PM
Do come up with _something_ for a name. If you can't think of one, may I suggest ``Mickey Mouse''?

kashmarekMarch 27, 2007 7:53 PM

They won't be able to use the TIDE name much longer. TIDE is a trademark (I think) of some company that manufactures soap.

Actually, the whole idea is to put everyone on some list, so you can be controlled.

TarkeelMarch 28, 2007 5:07 AM

@kashmarek: Trademarks are only valid in their respective trade-domains. Soap and "counter-terrorism" are not the same domains.

JDStackpoleApril 15, 2007 8:09 AM

Dunno if others have mentioned this, but a friend of mine with a last name ("Ryan") on "The List" (shudder, shudder) discovered that if he gave the airline clerk his U.S. Passport, he would breeze right through. Previously his state drivers license sent him to the "inspection" room.

MadmanSeptember 4, 2008 3:46 PM

All this confusion in names is why biometrics is so important. Iris scans very rarely lie.

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