Homeland Screeners Have Access to Secret Terrorist Database -- But Rarely Look At It

What use is good intelligence if you don't use it? The Homeland Security Department unit which routinely screens US-bound international airline passenger lists before clearing a flight for takeoff has access to the government's classified master data base of intelligence on terrorism suspects -- but rarely checks the data base before notifying airlines that a flight is good to go.

Homeland Security officials told reporters, on condition of anonymity, today that the National Targeting Center, a suburban Washington office which is part of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (which in turn is part of Homeland Security) has a special room where officials who do advance screening of airline passenger lists can go to access classified data bases including TIDE, the classified data base, maintained by a division of the National Intelligence Director's office, which is supposed to be the government's broadest source of raw intelligence information about terrorism suspects. As Newsweek and other media have previously reported, after the father of alleged would-be underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab notified an American Embassy in Nigeria of concerns that his son had fallen in with islamic extremists -- possibly in Yemen -- the National Counter-terrorism Center, which maintains TIDE, entered a report from the Embassy about the father's concerns into the TIDE data base.

The TIDE data base is used as raw material for entering terrorist suspects' names in unclassified databases, including an official "no fly" list of less than 4,000 names and a much larger terrorist screening watch list (400,000 plus names) which are used routinely to screen airline passenger lists before takeoff. Because it was not corroborated by any other intelligence information, US officials say, the TIDE entry on Abdulmutallab was never converted to an entry in any of the more routine passenger screening data bases, including the largest watch list.

The Homeland Security officials said they could not comment specifically on anything to do with Abdulmutallab or Northwest/Delta Flight 253, which he tried to blow up on Christmas Day as it began its descent toward Detroit. However, they did indicate that pre-takeoff checks of passenger names through the TIDE system were not at all routine, though they said they could not immediately provide statistics as to how often such checks occurred. As Newsweek reported last weekend, Dutch authorities said that the passenger list of Flight 253 was cleared by US authorities -- believed to be the National Targeting Center -- before it took off for Detroit on Christmas Day with Abdulmutallab on board.