Monday, December 28, 2009


I don’t normally write about hijacking issues because that is out of my general area of expertise (though I did work on the periphery of some live hijack-response operations in the Army in the early 80’s) and because they are not really germane to chemical security issues. I am making an exception in the case of the Nigerian ‘Bomber’ because of a Washington Post article that I found on this morning. The article looks at how a person that was identified by his father as a potential terrorist was allowed to get on an airplane bound for the United States. The article is well worth reading and it touches on a number of problems well known to anyone that has worked in or around the intelligence game. What will be of particular interest to the chemical security community is the existence of two intelligence lists; the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) administered by the Counterterrorism Center, and the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) administered by the FBI. TIDE TIDE is a very large data base of information on a large number of people (over a half a million according to the Washington Post article). All someone needs to do to make it into this data base is to appear on a piece of paper (or electronic file) from thousands of different sources (police organizations, intelligence agencies, newspapers, etc) attaching some sort of connection between the individual and a terrorist threat or organization. If the information appears or is collected, it goes into TIDE. TSDB The Terrorist Screening Database is a very much smaller (18,000 names according to the Washington Post article) data base of suspected terrorists maintained by the FBI. To make it from TIDE to TSDB there has to be some level of reasonable suspicion of potential terrorist ties. That level of reasonable suspicion would seldom be made on the basis of a single report being listed in TIDE, unless that report was based on a criminal or intelligence investigation. Where there were multiple entries in TIDE or the single point of information in TIDE was specific enough to raise concern in the intelligence or law enforcement community, some level of investigation would be conducted. That investigation, if it uncovered evidence worthy of concern, could result in a name being added to TSDB. Chemical Security Now, what does this have to do with chemical security? Readers of this blog might remember last June when I wrote about the new personnel surety program being developed by DHS to support the terrorist screening requirements of RBPS #12. The checks that would be conducted by DHS under that new program would be checks against the TSDB not TIDE. The question that arises out of this incident is whether the terrorist screening check should be conducted against the TSDB or against TIDE. Assume for the purposes of this discussion that there was not enough information in TIDE to justify moving the Nigerian Bomber’s name onto the TSDB. If instead of bombing the KLM airliner, he had moved to Houston (there is a large Nigerian immigrant population in and around Houston) and signed on to work at an oil refinery or off-shore rig, the planned TSDB check would not have stopped him from bombing such a target either. Civil libertarians will be quick to point out that the data necessary to be listed on TIDE is not vetted or verified in any meaningful manner. It is includes the worst sort of gossip and unfounded character assassination. To base employment decisions on that sort of data is certainly unfair and almost certainly illegal. So, how do we weigh the competing demands? Do we cut into civil liberties to protect against terrorist attacks? Do we blithely ignore ‘documented’ threats to preserve one bomber’s human rights? Or, do we accept that protecting society from the external threat of terrorist attack is worth giving up some of our individual liberties and due process protections? Before you answer, remember one thing; it was almost by accident that the Nigerian ended up on the TIDE list in the first place, not through diligent intelligence collection of as the result of a thorough police investigation. On November 19th a concerned father entered the US embassy in Nigeria to complain that his son had become ‘radicalized’. If that father had been able to hold onto hope for just another month, the complaint would have been made too late for it to even have registered on TIDE before the attempted bombing took place. Also remember this, that a few short years ago the TSDB numbered in excess of 30,000 names instead of today’s 18,000. What was the reason for the decrease? Too many innocent civilians complained that they had been unfairly placed upon that list. Old women and young children had been listed because their name (not their unique identity, just their name) was similar to that of a suspected or known terrorist. Finally, take this into account. No intelligence or police organization has ever come close to being 100% effective in identifying the mean spirited and dangerous enemies of our society. No matter how broad we cast the net, we will never identify all of our potential attackers. So even if we completely disregard personal liberties and privacy concerns, we are unlikely to catch all of our enemies before they attack. Now, which data base do you want DHS to use in conducting their terror database search for checking the backgrounds of employees, contractors and vendors working at high-risk chemical facilities? Oh, yes, remember that plant management will also be subject to the same check.


Laurie Thomas said...

On a similar topic, the background checks that are run during the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) enrollment process include a check against terrorist watch lists. This almost-tragedy has made some of us wonder about the accuracy of those watch list checks, and also made us wonder who has been given credentials when the most cursory study of the paperwork trail would reveal that person as a potential enemy of the United States.

PJCoyle said...

For my response to Laurie's comment see:

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