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Coming Home from Homeland Security

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  • | 6:00 p.m. February 4, 2005
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Coming Home from Homeland Security

By Francis X. Gilpin

Associate Editor

Ever wonder what happened to Donna A. Bucella, who served twice during the 1990s as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida?

Or whether America's foreign intelligence and law enforcement agencies are working together any better than they did before Sept. 11, 2001?

About 150 academics and lawyers got answers to both of those questions at a Jan. 28 symposium on the Stetson University College of Law's Tampa campus.

"In the Age of Terrorism...Where Should Attorneys Stand?" was the ponderous title of the daylong event, which drew speakers from all over the United States and a few from outside of the country.

Bucella came back to Tampa as director of an obscure but potentially important federal agency in Washington, D.C., called the Terrorist Screening Center. She was here to outline the center's mission at the Stetson symposium.

"We are really the clearinghouse and the connectors between the intel community and the law enforcement community," says Bucella.

George W. Bush created the Terrorist Screening Center by presidential directive late in 2003. The Republican president named Bucella to head the agency. That may have been a surprising choice, given that Bucella was viewed in Florida as a protege of ex-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a Democrat.

The Terrorist Screening Center is affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security but Bucella reports to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bucella's first task was to consolidate all of the nation's various watch lists of suspected terrorists. Next, the center installed information technology so not only agencies such as the FBI would have round-the-clock and real-time access to the lists but state and local police could weigh in as well.

The Central Intelligence Agency and similar shadowy data-collectors historically haven't been inclined to share information.

"You can't, from my days of being a prosecutor, confirm or deny that there is an open investigation," says Bucella. "Let me tell you something, when you're dealing with the intel community, I mean, their hair goes on fire. 'You shouldn't even be talking with them.' "

But there has been more cooperation since the 2001 terrorist attacks, she says.

Local law enforcement's entree to her agency is through the National Crime Information Center, which cops routinely check for outstanding warrants when stopping motorists and the like. A marker in the NCIC database attached to the record of any individual who is of interest to American intelligence agencies instructs police to contact the Terrorist Screening Center.

If the center determines there is a probable match, the FBI's Counter Terrorism Watch gets involved.

"So, for example, a cop here in Tampa could be asking questions [furnished by] somebody at CT Watch and the other person at CT Watch is on the phone with somebody from the CIA," says Bucella. "The real questions and the real information is getting back to the originators of the information."

Bucella says the purpose of the Terrorist Screening Center is limited. "We don't keep anything. We don't create any cases. We just give the information out," she says.

Bucella has to juggle the imperatives of a host of agencies. "With law enforcement, there's a little sense of urgency," she says. At the State Department, however, the diplomatic pace is plodding. "They can think, pontificate and come up with a white paper years later," Bucella says.


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