Trent Duffy, Public Affairs, FBI Terrorist Screening Center, Washington, D.C.
| It’s 3:00 a.m. on a desolate state route in the middle of nowhere, and an officer has made what seems like a routine traffic stop for speeding. Three persons sit in the dark vehicle ahead. The officer runs the tag numbers, and, all of a sudden, everything about this traffic stop changes.|
The check comes back with a special message from the FBI Terrorist Screening Center (TSC): “Warning—approach with caution.” At least one of the individuals is of investigative interest to law enforcement regarding association with terrorism.
The officer is able to receive this warning today because of the threads in the criminal justice net that come together through the TSC.
very week, according to data from the TSC, hundreds of known or suspected terrorists meet face-to-face with state, local, and tribal law enforcement in the United States under different circumstances. For many local officers, the contacts are during traffic stops; at other times, the contacts involve petty larceny and misdemeanors, or even incidents of suspicious terrorist activities. The attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of a Detroit-bound jet1 and the attempted car bombing in Times Square in New York City2 are reminders that terrorists still want to inflict great harm on people in the United States, as well as in other countries.
Further, as this article is being prepared for publication in early October 2010, a homeland security bulletin has been issued to state and local law enforcement agencies advising them that the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel alert for Americans in Europe, based on intelligence of the potential for attacks by al-Qaeda and other groups in Europe.
The travel alert, issued Sunday, October 3, by the State Department, warns of possible acts of terrorism by al-Qaeda and other organizations, particularly on public transportation and at tourist attractions. On Monday, October 4, Japan and Sweden issued similar advisories. Britain has warned that France and Germany are dealing with a “high threat of terrorism.”3
The terrorist acts of 9/11 have brought about a paradigm shift in the local-state-federal partnership, as witnessed by Captain Lenmuel S. Terry, a 34-year veteran of the Virginia State Police (VSP). “At one point, there were concerns about the flow of information, but the wall that existed years ago does not exist today,” he said. “Technology has come a long way in helping to dismantle that wall.”4
Local-State-Federal Information Sharing and Integration
The commonwealth of Virginia is a good example of how the flow of information has improved. Virginia, home to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, is a high-encounter state for terrorism for several reasons: proximity to the nation’s capital; heavy military and intelligence presence throughout the state; and the well-traveled I-95 corridor. Because of this, Virginia’s law enforcement community has been at the forefront of the collaborative effort in homeland security and counterterrorism.
The VSP and Captain Terry are integrating the TSC’s training program at the state training academy. The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has delivered TSC training to more than 400 officers since 2009. While officers attending these programs are always surprised to learn of the large number of TSC hits encountered in Virginia each month, they leave the class armed with the knowledge of their duties in working the frontline in the fight against terrorism.
“They felt like they had received information that they previously did not have,” said Captain Terry. “They saw it as new information and better information. They now have a much better feel for how it can help them.”5
The Arlington County and Fairfax County police departments, located in Northern Virginia and bordering Washington, D.C., have also worked hard to integrate TSC training for all personnel. Because of this coordinated approach, Virginia law enforcement now leads the nation in contacting the TSC when a potential match is identified.Though the basic program is relatively constant, TSC tailors each training session to each unit and the particular terrorist threat characteristics of certain areas. TSC has conducted hundreds of briefings for thousands of officers across the United
States since its creation.
The objective of TSC’s law enforcement outreach program is to inform every law enforcement department that this training is available. TSC’s active outreach program seeks to raise awareness and recognition of this important system, with the end result being TSC integration into daily officer practices.
Recognizing the need for enhanced coordination and communication between the FBI and its federal, state, local, county, tribal, and campus law enforcement partners, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller created the Office of Law Enforcement Coordination (OLEC) in 2002. Since January 2009, Ronald Ruecker has served as the Assistant Director of OLEC. Ruecker was the Director of Public Safety for the city of Sherwood, Oregon; is a Past President of the IACP; and was previously the General Chair of the IACP’s Division of State and Provincial Police. He served for more than 31 years with the Oregon State Police, concluding his tenure as Superintendent in December 2006.
While Ruecker challenged the perception that local-state-federal law enforcement relations and information sharing were poor prior to 9/11, he said that in the years since then, the partnership had grown stronger than ever.
“In pre-9/11 days, I don’t think people thought much about it,” Ruecker said. “When I was in state and local law enforcement, I was confident that if I needed to know something, the FBI special agent in charge would tell me. The biggest contributor to the perception of there being barriers in law enforcement was probably in the media and the movies. Sure, there were a few cases that got some attention, but, overall, I always felt that it was more myth than truth.”6
After 9/11, it became apparent that all of law enforcement needed to work together better, and this reality led to more focused interaction. The fusion centers, the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the TSC all involve a growing level of interaction with the FBI. These foundations provide a solid information-sharing partnership.
In recent years, there has been a real uptick in information sharing, attributed in part to the outreach efforts and the growing partnerships that have been built on more openness and more information exchange. According to Ruecker, the other driving factors are the threat landscape and the high-profile incidents that make the security challenge real. “There’s more chatter out there, and we had 9/11, Timothy McVeigh, and Times Square,” he said. “People no longer think about encountering a known or suspected terrorist as a pie-in-the-sky type of idea.”7
Actionable Intelligence for Beat Officers
While significant intelligence, teamwork, and advanced information technology are required to compile and maintain all the records that make up the terrorist database, the way officers verify whether an individual is on the list is ultimately through a simple phone call. A beat officer can make a traffic stop, and identifying information is immediately cross-checked through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system, available to all state and local officers in the United States.
If NCIC responds that the individual is on the terrorist watch list, the officer then needs to call one of the many trained operations specialists who staff the TSC operations center, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The main priority of this call is to elicit enough information to enable an identity determination. For example, if the suspected terrorist lost a right thumb in a previous bombing, the TSC specialist would tell the officer to check the stopped suspect’s right hand for a missing thumb. If the officer reports that the thumb is missing, this builds a stronger case that the individual is in fact the individual on the watch list.
Information sharing is not a one-way street. Beat officers have an important role and the information they may be able to collect adds to the national databases for other officers. A local beat officer’s role can be simplified to answering the following questions: What else can I find out about these people? What sort of items do these people have in their cars?
Once a positive match is made, the information flow begins—all to the benefit of enhanced national and homeland security (see figure 1).
On December 28, 2007, a vehicle was stopped for a tinted window violation in a heavily populated area in Southern California.8 An NCIC hit on the driver was identified. The responding officer followed up with a quick call to the TSC to confirm that the driver was on the terrorist watch list and was the subject of a southwestern FBI terrorism investigation. The officer determined that the three passengers had consumed alcohol, but the driver had not. The officer conducted a basic search of the vehicle and found two business cards belonging to FBI special agents. Further information revealed two of the three passengers were subjects of terrorism investigations in a southeastern U.S. city and a midwestern U.S. city. This information was communicated to FBI case agents.
This discovery of a vehicle containing three terrorism suspects under investigation by three separate FBI field offices provided invaluable intelligence information to the federal authorities. This is thanks to a police officer who was doing his job and using all the tools afforded to him. This is just one of the thousands of real-life examples of how the stronger partnerships among the local-state-federal law enforcement communities have made immeasurable improvements to homeland and community security.
Although 10 states lead the country in the times an officer encounters a known or suspected terrorist (see figure 2), encounters have occurred in every state in the nation. This is why it is critical for officers everywhere to contact the TSC when an NCIC check indicates a potential hit. Some states like Virginia aim for a rate of 100 percent for officers contacting the TSC for a possible match. Other states and localities have improved their rates, but, in some areas of the country, the contact rates are still below where they should be.
While there are competing demands on state and local law enforcement, working with the TSC not only improves officer safety and community protection, but actually increases operational efficiency. The TSC and the fusion centers are force multipliers, so strong partnerships help all do more with limited resources.
The TSC and the Terrorist Watch List
Before 9/11, various government agencies maintained nearly one dozen separate watch lists, including
- The U.S. Department of State Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS);
- The DHS Customs and Border Protection Traveler Enforcement Compliance System (TECS; formerly Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS));
- The Transportation Security Administration No-Fly List and Selectee List;
- The National Automated Immigration Lookout (NAILS) (no longer exists);
- The Automated Biometric (fingerprint) Identification System (ABIS);
- The U.S. Marshals Service Warrant Information;
- The FBI National Crime Information Center/Violent Gang & Terrorist organization File (NCIC/VGTOF);
- The FBI Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS);
- The U.S. National Central Bureau for Interpol;
- The U.S. Department of State Terrorism Watch List (TIPOFF); and
- The U.S. Department of Defense Watch Lists (for example, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations’ Top Ten Fugitive List).
While some lists were shared, there was little integration and cooperation among agencies, and there was no central clearinghouse where all law enforcement and government screeners could access the best information about a potential person of interest.
The TSC began operations on December 1, 2003, and is the U.S. government’s consolidation point for known and suspected terrorist watch list information, both foreign and domestic. The terrorist watch list, also known as the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), contains thousands of records that are updated daily and shared with federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement and intelligence community members, as well as international partners, to ensure that individuals with links to terrorism are appropriately screened.
The process by which an individual is placed on the terrorist watch list is fairly straightforward. Intelligence is gathered, biographical data are secured, and a person of interest is nominated for inclusion. The National Counterterrorism Center collects international terrorist information and sends identifying data to the TSC for review, while the FBI is responsible for purely domestic terrorist identity information and nominations (see figure 3).
The TSC accepts nominations when they satisfy two requirements. First, the biographic information associated with a nomination must contain sufficient identifying data so that a person being screened can be matched to or disassociated from a watch-listed terrorist. Second, the facts and circumstances pertaining to the nomination must meet the reasonable suspicion standard of review established by terrorist screening presidential directives. Due weight must be given to the reasonable inferences that a person can draw from the available facts. Mere guesses or inarticulate hunches are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion to watch-list an individual.
While there have been occasional news reports on some individuals being misidentified while traveling, the actual number is a mere fraction of the overall list.
“We take great care in the watch-listing process because we don’t gain anything by inconveniencing the general public,” said the TSC’s Timothy Healy. “And the number of individuals who thought they were inappropriately listed and actually had any connection to the watch list is less than one percent. The fact is, we have limited resources, so we have to keep our focus on those who we believe want to do us harm. Last point, there are no children on the No-Fly List.”9
Building and keeping the watch list accurate, current, and thorough is only half of the TSC’s strategic mission in homeland security and counterterrorism efforts. The other half is implementation, information sharing, and pushing the list to the people who need it.
Without the participation of the entire law enforcement, homeland security, and counterterrorism communities, the watch list is just a hollow bunch of names. A core part of the TSC’s mission is to push this information out to law enforcement so all law enforcement knows where to find help and also understands the local beat officer’s critical role in the effort to keep up with today’s modern terrorist threat.
To schedule a TSC training session for your department, contact the TSC at 703-418-99586 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.■
1Anahad O’Connor and Eric Schmitt, “Terror Attempt Seen as Man Tries to Ignite Device on Jet,” The New York Times, December 25, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/26/us/26plane.html (accessed October 5, 2010).
2Al Baker and William K. Rashbaum, “Police Find Car Bomb in Times Square,” The New York Times, March 1, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/nyregion/02timessquare.html (accessed October 5, 2010).
3Charisse Jones, “Terror Warning Puts U.S. Travelers Overseas on Alert,” USA Today, October 5, 2010, http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/travel/2010-10-05-travelwarnings05_ST_N.htm (accessed October 5, 2010).
4Lenmuel S. Terry, face-to-face interview, April 27, 2010.
6Ronald Ruecker, telephone interview, June 17, 2010.
8Privileged information provided by the TSC.
9Timothy J. Healy, a series of face-to-face interviews, June 2010.
Please cite as:
Trent Duffy, "Training for Face-to-Face Encounters," The Police Chief 77 (November 2010): 24–31,
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM1110/#/24 (insert access date).