WASHINGTON – More leadership must come from the top if the U.S. government is to complete its master list of potential bad guys, a Democratic House lawmaker charged on Tuesday.
"It's pretty clear to us, we're still not where we need to be," Rep. Jim Turner (search), the ranking Democrat from Texas on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, told reporters during a conference call.
What's needed is "a unified database of all of the lists kept by various federal agencies, and that database should be able to be accessed in real time by federal, state and local officials," Turner said. "In my view, it's way overdue."
In one of many responses to the Sept. 11, 2001 (search), terror attacks, the Bush administration announced in September the formation of the Terrorist Screening Center (search), which would consolidate terrorist watch lists and provide around-the-clock support for federal screeners.
Most of the information about known or suspected terrorists to be used by the new agency was supposed to be obtained from the Terrorist Threat Information Center (search), which assembles and analyzes that information from various sources.
The TSC, in turn, is supposed to consolidate the information into an unclassified terrorist screening database and make it accessible to federal, state and local agencies.
An official at the FBI, which houses the TSC, told Foxnews.com that the screening center is operational, though it is clearly not 100 percent up to speed. An aide to Rep. Chris Cox (search), R-Calif., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said the TSC is groundbreaking territory and that the administration has given every indication that it is a priority and a crucial component to the homeland security agenda.
Some members of Congress have repeatedly criticized the Department of Homeland Security for moving too slowly to merge the lists, which are maintained by a number of agencies including the Departments of Defense, Justice, State, Transportation and Treasury.
Turner and other committee Democrats sent a letter on Nov. 21 to the FBI outlining 10 requirements for the center to be fully operational by its original Dec. 1, 2003, launch. The lawmakers also asked for the FBI to give a timeline for when those milestones would be met.
"The TSC is currently in the test phase of the consolidated database application which will assimilate available terrorist information into one unified database" known as the Terrorist Screening Data Base, Eleni P. Kalisch, assistant director of the FBI's Office of Congressional Affairs, wrote in a Dec. 18 response to the letter.
"The TSC is working with the intelligence community, international agencies, and other federal law enforcement agencies to obtain information on individuals suspected of terrorism for addition to the TSDB," Kalisch's letter reads.
The letter explains that the TSC has developed a "nomination process" to control names that go into the database and has designed a "misidentification and deletion process" to ensure accuracy of the information. The program's director has also established a multi-agency working group to review privacy issues, Kalisch wrote.
TSC officials have estimated that, as of December, about 10,000 names were in their database. As of this April, they have said, they estimate there will be about 50,000 to 55,000, according to Democratic staffers.
But Turner and other Democrats aren't satisfied with the speed or operational capacity of the TSC to date, and are up in arms that portions of the TSC are still in its "test phase."
From the FBI's response "as well as through other independent sources, it seems abundantly clear" no effective system is in place, Turner said.
"It seems so fundamental to waging this war against terrorists, to have a single, unified, functioning terrorist watch list, that I don't think we can do anything other than continue to point out this failure with the hope that this administration will devote more energy and more leadership to getting this job done," he said.
Turned named other shortcomings of the program, including the failure to integrate as much as 20 percent of terror watch list records into the TSC system; staffing of TSC with only 28 people as of mid-December; and unresolved issues on basic information sharing and data-use among various agencies that own the 12 separate watch lists.
"The technology is available to solve this problem but what I think we've seen is a lack of leadership in forcing that technology to be applied" and determining who should have access to the information, Turner said.
One very public failure of the system, Turner said, was evident over the holidays when several flights coming into the United States were delayed or canceled because of security concerns, including the possibility that there were terrorists on the planes.
"It was interesting to me that when we learned about the cancellation of the Air France flights, we also learned ... that the TSC wasn't even used during that period of time when you would have thought that the first thing you would have done is taken the suspicious names of the passengers lists and run them through" TSC, Turner said.
But he and others were told the TSC wasn't even consulted, he said.
Turner said he has asked Cox to hold hearings on the issue as soon as Congress returns from its recess and to "vigorously exercise our oversight responsibility" to get the TSC off the ground. A Cox aide said the chairman has received Turner's request for hearings but has not yet announced the committee's schedule.