How are terrorists tracked, and what does it cost?

Countering Terrorism

The 9/11 tragedy in the United States raised many questions about how the government gathers intelligence on terrorist cells. The government recognized a need for a centralized task force to compile and store the stacks of information various intelligence organizations had built over the years. Most of these agencies had limited communication with other groups. While the United States as a whole had a great deal of information about terrorists, that information was split up among various agencies. The country needed a more unified approach.

Presidential Executive Order 13354 was an attempt to establish an agency dedicated to such a goal. It established the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2004. The head of the NCTC reports to two individuals: the President of the United States and the Director of National Intelligence. The NCTC employs around 600 analysts. It's their job to collect information from other groups such as state, local and tribal law officials as well as federal agencies like the FBI. The NCTC then collates this information and makes it available to other law agencies to help with investigations.

The NCTC oversees an enormous database called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). According to the NCTC, there were more than 564,000 names in the TIDE database as of January 2009 [source: NCTC]. The NCTC points out that many of these names are aliases -- the organization estimates that the list actually represents about 500,000 people.

Most of these names come from reports submitted by law enforcement and intelligence officials. As these officials gather data, they submit it to the NCTC. The NCTC must format and file the information in the TIDE system. This is more complex than it sounds -- each agency might have its own format for collecting information. The NCTC must take all of these different styles and convert them into a single format to make the database usable.

The NCTC makes the list available to customs officials, the Department of State's visa office and port authorities. The people working in these offices are the United States' first line of protection against terrorism. It's their job to check people entering into the country against the terrorist watch list.

Next, we'll look at how the government tracks terrorist cells.