Each day, thousands of pieces of intelligence information from around the world — field reports, captured documents, news from foreign allies and sometimes idle gossip — arrive in a computer-filled office in McLean, where analysts feed them into the nation’s central list of terrorists and terrorism suspects.
Called TIDE, for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, the list is a storehouse for data about individuals that the intelligence community believes might harm the United States. It is the wellspring for watch lists distributed to airlines, law enforcement, border posts and U.S. consulates, created to close one of the key intelligence gaps revealed after Sept. 11, 2001: the failure of federal agencies to share what they knew about al-Qaeda operatives.
But in addressing one problem, TIDE has spawned others. Ballooning from fewer than 100,000 files in 2003 to about 435,000, the growing database threatens to overwhelm the people who manage it. “The single biggest worry that I have is long-term quality control,” said Russ Travers, in charge of TIDE at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean. “Where am I going to be, where is my successor going to be, five years down the road?”
TIDE has also created concerns about secrecy, errors and privacy. The list marks the first time foreigners and U.S. citizens are combined in an intelligence database. The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it. At any stage, the process can lead to “horror stories” of mixed-up names and unconfirmed information, Travers acknowledged.