WASHINGTON -- There aren't many people who would consider the Ford Motor Co. or a 2-year-old to be terrorist threats, but the United States' premier database for classifying such dangers includes both, according to Department of Homeland Security officials interviewed in a Senate committee investigation.
The report, released this week by the Senate Homeland Security Committee's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, focused on the dubious counterterrorism effectiveness of some 77 "fusion centers." The report found these centers do a terrible job funneling useful threat information from the local law enforcers to national intelligence agents.
The report concluded that much of the information generated was useless and some was potentially unconstitutional. But it also found that the premier database that the fusion centers -- and indeed all of the nation's counterterrorism systems -- depend on is so deeply flawed that Homeland Security officials mock it.
The system is called TIDE, which stands for Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, and includes more than 500,000 names. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, which maintains TIDE, it's supposed to contain "all information the U.S. government possesses related to the identities of individuals known or appropriately suspected to be or have been involved in activities constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism, with the exception of purely domestic terrorism information."
That information is meant to provide the backbone for all the government's terrorist surveillance tools, including the terrorist watch list, the "No Fly" list and the State Department's visa checking systems.
Yet, even after the system was supposed to have been improved so that it no longer tripped up people such as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the TIDE system still includes apparently ridiculous entries.
“Not everything in TIDE is KST,” DHS privacy official Ken Hunt told the Senate subcommittee. KST refers to the phrase “known or suspected terrorist,” the supposed subject matter contained in TIDE.
Another Homeland Security official, whose identity the subcommittee shielded, highlighted the poor quality of the data by pointing to the automaker Ford after a subcommittee staffer asked how serious it was for someone to match a TIDE record.
“Would you buy a Ford?” the Senior Reports Officer asked. “Ford Motor Company has a TIDE record.”
Ole Broughton, who ran intelligence oversight at Homeland Security's Intelligence and Analysis division from 2007 until last January, was especially dubious of the system.
Broughton told committee investigators that he recalled seeing "an individual’s 2-year-old son [identified] in an HIR [homeland information report]," noting the boy "had a TIDE record.”
According to the committee's report, Broughton believed a child could wind up in a terrorist database because "intelligence officials had routinely put information on 'associates' of known or suspected terrorists into TIDE, without determining that that person would qualify as a known or suspected terrorist."
“We had a lot of discussion regarding ‘associates’ in TIDE,” Broughton told the committee investigators.
Mark Collier, another senior reports officer, told the committee that people who had been investigated and determined to be innocent also wind up in the database.
In one case, a TIDE record was based on an FBI probe, but it was never updated or removed after the FBI ended its investigation "and cleared the individual of any connection to terrorism," the report said.
A spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center said the agency was not commenting on the report.
Civil liberties advocates, though, said the report highlights flaws of a paranoid, kitchen-sink approach to an anti-terror effort that swoops even infants into its nets, while making if harder to spot real threats -- such as the Christmas Day underwear bomb plotter Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had a record in TIDE but still boarded a plane to the United States in 2009.
"When you create a database that people no longer have confidence in, they're going to start ignoring its hits. The fact that there is a hit is no longer of relevance," said Michael German, the senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
German hailed the work of the bipartisan subcommittee, which is headed by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The fusion centers at the heart of their report are one of the sources of information for the TIDE system, but their information is seldom useful, the report said.
Homeland Security officials claimed that the report's work was outdated in regards to the centers, but German said, at the very least, Congress needs to do more to fix the system.
"What is the value of the added reporting if it's meaningless?" he said. "We're hoping this is a first step in an intensified investigation."
"What you have is a layered and interlocking system of intelligence collection, and it really needs a comprehensive review because I am confident that the problems found in the Senate investigation will be mirrored in the other parts," German said.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.