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Back to Archives | Back to October 2007 Contents 

From the Director

The U.S. Terrorist Screening Center: Connecting the Dots for Law Enforcement Agencies at All Levels

By Leonard C. Boyle, Director, U.S. Terrorist Screening Center, Washington, D.C.

Leonard C. Boyle
Leonard C. Boyle, Director, U.S. Terrorist Screening Center, Washington, D.C.

hat calls people to a career in law enforcement? The answer undoubtedly varies, but the well-known credo “to protect and serve” certainly resounds with everyone who has worn the uniform. I know that service of those noble goals sustained and motivated me when I joined the East Hartford, Connecticut, Police Department in 1975. The notion that I was protecting those who could not protect themselves gave me an identity and purpose that I carried during my career as a federal prosecutor, as commissioner of the Connecticut State Police, and now as the director of the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center, the U.S. government’s consolidation point for known and suspected terrorist watchlist information.

In 1975 the terrorist group FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional), a Puerto Rican clandestine terrorist group that advocated complete independence for Puerto Rico, claimed credit for the bombing of the historic Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan, killing four innocent people. They did it—so they said—in the name of independence for Puerto Rico. Two decades later, Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He did it—so he said—because of his discontent with the U.S. government. And, of course, in 2001, al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens in coordinated attacks against the United States. They did it—so they said—in the name of jihad.

All these criminals claimed to have acted for a greater cause, one for which they cared deeply. Perhaps that is true. But they were unconcerned with the issue of who failed to stop them—as long as no one did. They did not care whether they killed in Oklahoma or New York; it didn’t matter to them whether they violated state laws, federal laws, or both. All that concerned them was that they were successful, not who bore the blame for failing to stop them. For all these years, law enforcement agencies concerned themselves too much with laying the blame for such failures—and our enemies exploited it.

Before September 11, 2001, state and federal law enforcement officials shared information on a limited basis. Today, we all recognize the value of sharing information among federal, state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies. Routine traffic stops are now seen as opportunities to gather intelligence or perhaps serve as the last line of defense to ensure that those who would do us harm do not fly another plane into buildings. While we may never know if we could have prevented some or all of the 9/11 hijackers from inflicting mindless destruction, the U.S. government has clearly made great strides to ensure that appropriate information is shared.

The U.S. director of national intelligence has directed that the federal intelligence community no longer operate on a “need-to-know basis” but rather on an “obligation to provide.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has funded dozens of state, county, and municipal intelligence fusion centers around the country. And U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Robert Mueller has mandated that FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) and Field Intelligence Groups (FIGs) share intelligence with federal and state law enforcement partners in ways never before envisioned. The U.S. Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), part of the FBI’s National Security Branch, plays a central role in funneling terrorist information to those who most need it: U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents; the Transportation Security Administration; and state, county, and municipal law enforcement officers.

The FBI lists every subject of its terrorist investigations in the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File (VGTOF). Even during a routine traffic stop, police officers can query the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system and automatically check the driver’s name against the VGTOF. Should the subject’s name generate a “hit,” officers receive a message that instructs them to call the TSC to verify the driver’s identity.

The TSC call center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week—no busy signals, no recordings. Each call is answered by a trained TSC analyst who has full electronic access to all known information about the subject. If the identity is confirmed, the TSC analyst will connect police officers (or dispatchers) to the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Operations Unit, which coordinates federal law enforcement response through the case agent or the local JTTF. Once the case agent and JTTF are notified, they will work with encountering officers to develop as much useful intelligence as possible. All these actions take place within a matter of minutes, providing officers with valuable information and guidance that allows them to determine the best course of action, which can include gathering more information or further questioning the subject.

Since the inception of the TSC we have seen state, county, and municipal officers develop intelligence of extraordinary value to ongoing terrorist investigations. Identifying passengers in a car occupied by a suspected terrorist may yield critical links to other groups or activities. Items seized during a car search or a search incident to arrest have yielded a treasure trove of intelligence used to track suspects, develop probable cause for warrants and wiretaps, or mine existing sources for more specific information.

With the development of state fusion centers nationwide—another effort to share information—the TSC is coordinating activities to maximize local knowledge of terrorist suspects, vulnerabilities, and trends. Depending on the protocols established by the constituent agencies, fusion center personnel may serve as another point of contact with the TSC and federal law enforcement agencies during an encounter with a suspected terrorist. By accessing local intelligence databases, fusion centers can serve as valuable sources of additional intelligence while at the same time coordinating actions on the street so that encountering officers are not distracted at the risk of their safety and have whatever additional resources they need.

Since starting operations in December 2003, the TSC has seen the historical pre-9/11 “stovepipes” give way to today’s active information-sharing environment. Our consolidated watchlist provides access to the type of information that may have helped Maryland state troopers identify Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker who piloted the plane that crashed into a field in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania, following a routine traffic stop in 2001. Making the call to the TSC could mean the difference between stopping a terrorist and experiencing another catastrophic event on U.S. soil. Local law enforcement agencies are truly the last line of defense to keep hometowns and the homeland safe. We might never know what potential terrorist attacks law enforcement officers have thwarted. We can be certain, however, that successful apprehension of suspected terrorists will result from shared information that “connects the dots.”■



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 10, October 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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