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A powerful weapon for police in the post-9/11 world

The Terrorist Screening Center and the TSDB enable law enforcement officers to find and apprehend terrorists in the U.S.


Three of the 9/11 hijackers — Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Hani Hanjour — were stopped by state or local law enforcement for traffic violations in the days leading up to the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

AP Photo

Consider this hypothetical. In the final hour of your shift, you stop a vehicle for a traffic violation. After entering the name of the driver into an NCIC query on your squad computer you receive a message that says, “Warning, approach with caution. This individual is of investigative interest to law enforcement regarding association with terrorism.” The message on the screen is accompanied by a toll-free phone number. What do you do? You make the call, right?

If your answer was “yes,” you’d be connected to a call center — staffed 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — designed specifically to help cops on the street find and apprehend terrorists, would-be terrorists, and people who support terrorism. The people staffing those calls work for the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), and they have at their fingertips the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the largest and most comprehensive watch list of known or suspected terrorists in the world.

Prior to the creation of the TSDB, information about known or suspected terrorists was dispersed throughout the U.S. Government and no one agency was charged with consolidating it and making it available for use in terrorist screening. In fact, three of the 9/11 hijackers — Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, and Hani Hanjour — were stopped by state or local law enforcement for traffic violations in the days leading up to the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. Because there was no central system with which law enforcers could identify them as having an association with terrorism, they were free to make their attack.

With TSC, such a system is not only in place, it’s successfully catching would-be terrorists and their associates on a daily basis.

How — and Why — TSC Works
“When the officer calls us,” Timothy Healy, Director of the Terrorist Screening Center, said during an exclusive interview with Police1, “we have the ability to go high-sight information — top secret information. What the officer has is identifying information. We take the identifying information — the subject’s name, date of birth, height, weight. We’re looking at the information and talking to the officer on the street. That happens live. It happens every day between seventy-five and a hundred and fifty times per day, and of those, between thirty and fifty percent are positive.”

Traffic stops, Healy explained, account for about a third of the positive encounters TSC has with known or suspected terrorists within the United States. Given the numbers Healy is talking about, that means state and local police officers have contact with anywhere between 15 and 25 known or suspected terrorists every single day. And that’s just the number we know about! Some cops, Healy lamented, still don’t know about TSC so they may not make that phone call.

Let’s continue with our hypothetical traffic stop. During your initial contact you observed that that the driver has only two fingers on one of his hands. Maybe you didn’t think much of it initially but as your interaction with TSC continues, you soon realize that you’ve got a very important piece of information.

“We’re looking at our information and find out that this officer is dealing with a bomber — a bomb-maker — and on his right hand he’s got three fingers missing,” said Healy. “We wouldn’t ask the officer to check his hand for three fingers missing. We’d say, ‘Can you describe his right hand?’ If the officer would say, ‘There’s three fingers missing,’ we’d know we have a match. So at that point, we’d tell the officer that they’re dealing with a positive match, and then we’d automatically rout that to the terrorist screening operation unit of the FBI.”

The FBI would notify the case agent in charge of the investigation on that individual, and coordinate what the law enforcement approach should be. From the time our hypothetical officer stops the vehicle with the three-fingers-missing bomb-maker inside, to the time that the case agent is notified and begins to coordinate a response is between three to seven minutes.

Maintaining Timely Information
Interacting with law enforcement officers is just half of the job — the other half is making sure the information they’re working with is timely, accurate, and maintained in a manner consistent Constitutional protections of privacy and civil liberties ensured to American citizens.

TSC makes between 1,200 and 1,500 additions, modifications, or deletions to the TSDB every single day. Every time a counterterrorism investigation on a person is opened, the individual is added to the TSDB. When additional information is found during that investigation, the subject’s record in TSDB is updated. Investigators may get to the point where they’ve exhausted all the intelligence and decide a case can be prosecuted. Or they’ll discover that the suspect is getting ready to conduct a terrorist act, and they’ll make an arrest to stop it. In each instance, the TSDB is updated with the latest information. And of course, if at the end of the investigation it’s determined that the individual has no connection to terrorism, they’re removed from the TSDB.

It bears repeating: There are between 1,200 and 1,500 updates to the TSDB every single day. With information being changed that frequently, how do you ensure that the officer on the street has up-to-the-minute intelligence? Without getting too deep into the computer science weeds, Healy explained that the TSDB interacts with NCIC through what is known as a transactional interface.

“Every state and local cop when they stop someone on the street, they query NCIC some cases, right from their car, in other cases they may have to call the dispatcher. In any event, they’ll query the subject’s name. We actually have a transactional import, which means, the second we identify a known or suspected terrorist and we incorporate it into the Terrorist Screening Center Database, that information is immediately available to that state or local officer. We have this connectivity with NCIC so that when we decide, ‘yes, this person is a terrorist,’ that information is made available to the officer.”

In essence, the two databases “talk to each other” in real time, all the time.

Two Not-So-Hypothetical Situations
We know that it’s not unusual for an officer making a traffic stop to identify all the people in the car. Sure, in some states it’s illegal, but in most of them it’s not, and in those states where it’s permitted it’s commonly practiced. Healy told Police1 of a case in which a savvy cop was able to help three different counterterrorism investigations by doing precisely this.

“We had a subject stopped in L.A. and there were two other people in the car. One was a subject of an FBI CT investigation in New Orleans, another one was a CT investigation I believe in Phoenix. Neither the Phoenix nor the New Orleans case agent nor the L.A. case agent knew that their subjects were associated somehow. Nor did any of them know that their subjects were together, and none of them knew that the subjects were in the same car together kind of hanging out.”

The law enforcement officer, Healy explained, was able to obtain positive intelligence for each investigator that they didn’t know.

“I used to do a presentation and I would, at one point during the presentation, pop up this card ... a picture of a driver’s license. It would have information about the individual, it would have information about a couple cell phones that the guy had, and then phone numbers that we’re called. I’d say, ‘Where do you think I got this from?’ and people would look at me and say, ‘You got it from a cop’.”

But Healy didn’t get it from a cop — he got it from the CIA.

“Yes a cop did gather that information. Yes the case agent did coordinate with the police officer, yes the case agent did get that information, submitted it back through the process, and it got entered and added into the very highly classified, top-secret information. That information was available to the intelligence committee, as it is to any FBI agent working a particular case. And so then you had the agency call me to say, ‘Well done, Terrorist Screening Center, this thing actually works.’ You had the CIA call to say, ‘The information that law enforcement officer obtained during his normal traffic stop was helpful to our terrorism cause in the CIA.’ That is truly connecting the dots.”

State and Local Law Enforcement is Key
Remember, Oklahoma State Trooper Charles J. Hanger caught Timothy McVeigh during a traffic stop on an interstate shortly after McVeigh killed 168 people in the Alfred P. Murrah Building.

“The success of the Terrorist Screening Center would not be the way it is right now, and we would not have the intelligence we have, if it wasn’t for the professionalism of the state and local officers — specifically when they encounter known or suspected terrorists — in terms of how they act, how they proceed, and the intelligence that they collect,” Healy concluded. “So when you have somebody from the agency providing accolades to a state or local cop — that somebody stops to say, ‘Hey, well done,’ — that to me is something that I’ve never seen in my twenty-five years of being in the FBI.”

TSC is staffed by individuals from myriad government entities, including law enforcement personnel from federal agencies such as Customs & Border Protection, Immigration Customs Enforcement, U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives. To schedule a TSC training session for your police department, contact the TSC at 703-418-9586 or

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.