Privacy SOS

The flaws in the functioning of the post 9/11 intelligence system came to light late in 2009, when a 23-year-old Nigerian national, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, managed to evade the vast surveillance network and carry explosives on board a plane headed for the United States. 

Well before Abdulmutallab took his seat on a plane, Congress had designated $300 million to fix technical problems in the National Counterterrorism Center’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) system. According to an August 21, 2008 letter written by Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) detailing the fundamental design and performance flaws of the system, the attempt to fix them only made them worse. 

The TIDE system is where Abdulmutallab’s name and biographical data were deposited after his father in November 2009 told the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, as well as CIA officials about his son’s possible ties to extremists in Yemen. There that information remained, along with a rising tide of information about some 550,000 other identities. Despite the fact that Abdulmutallab had been listed on a UK watch list in May 2009, and despite intelligence about a plot  involving a “Nigerian” trained in Yemen, his name was never moved from the TIDE system to the master watch list in the Terrorist Screening Center, maintained by the FBI.

The Terrorist Screening Database contains well over a million names, including aliases.  The FBI decides on a daily basis who should be included on the master watch list, added to the thousands-strong “No Fly” list or put on a larger list of people targeted for additional airport screening.  The rate at which names have been entered onto the master watch list has been steadily growing, with the FBI reporting to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the fall of 2009 that 1,600 people are being nominated for inclusion every day – more than double the number entered in September 2007.

The backlog of electronic files the FBI had failed to review was 7.2 million by 2009, when the Justice Department’s Inspector General reported to Congress that it also had a backlog of counterterrorism wiretaps to process that was the equivalent of a recording lasting five and a half years. Then FBI Deputy Director John Pistole  – now head of the TSA – told Congress that the backlog was not in fact overwhelming, since the FBI had the assistance of “advanced technology” and “sophisticated computer searches of databases to find high priority files” (New York Times, October 27, 2009). 

But as chair of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight of the Committee on Science and Technology, Rep. Brad Miller did not see technology as a silver bullet. Citing a Government Accountability Office study, he reported that “413 government IT projects totaling more than $25 billion in FY2008 alone were poorly planned, poorly performing, or both” (letter to the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, August 21, 2008).

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.