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All Eyes on Terror By: Eric Lichtblau
New York Times | Wednesday, September 17, 2003


The Bush administration announced the creation of a new counterterrorism center today intended to develop a master "watch list" of more than 100,000 terrorism suspects and avoid the communication breakdowns that plagued the federal government before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The move comes in response to repeated calls from members of Congress for law enforcement and intelligence officials to develop an integrated list to replace the piecemeal approach now in place.

Federal agencies now maintain at least a dozen watch lists to determine such things as who can enter the country and who can board an airplane. But a report in April from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that some agencies had no policies for sharing information, while those that did were hindered by turf battles and outdated technology that made it difficult to transfer information about suspects.

The plan announced today would create a new screening center, to be led by the F.B.I. in conjunction with the C.I.A., the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Officials said they expected the center to be operating by December. It will track, they said, not only suspected foreign terrorists but also Americans tied to domestic events like violence at abortion clinics.

Civil rights advocates said they worried that the new process would give the government greater power to track and compile information on Americans and others who may have no clear links to terrorism. Law enforcement officials pledged to respect privacy and civil rights while improving national security.

The center, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "will provide one-stop shopping so that every federal antiterrorist screener is working off the same page — whether it's an airport screener, an embassy official issuing visas overseas or an F.B.I. agent on the street."

The master list will probably assemble more than 100,000 names, said John Brennan, who heads a separate terrorist threat assessment center run by the C.I.A. that was created by the Bush administration earlier this year.

Officials said a working group was still developing details about how the center would operate, but they said they expected that even private-sector groups, like airlines and energy plants, would have access to some information from the list.

A power plant, for instance, could research a prospective employee "to make sure they're not hiring someone who is part of a terrorist organization," said Bill Parrish, an acting assistant secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.

Officials said the coordination should also help to minimize the communication errors that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks. In one glaring breakdown, two Sept. 11 hijackers were allowed to enter the country and live in San Diego even though the C.I.A. suspected that they were terrorists. Other agencies later complained that the C.I.A. did not seek to put the men on domestic watch lists until weeks before the attacks.

Lawmakers said they welcomed the administration's plan, though it struck several as belated. "Today's announcement finally begins to implement this critical recommendation to enhance our homeland security," said Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Securities Studies, a civil rights group, said the job of integrating the watch lists should have been left to Congress, not law enforcement and intelligence officials.

"There needs to be some public discussion about what criteria are going to be used to determine who is really considered a terrorism suspect," Ms. Martin said. "This proposal has no safeguards built into it."




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