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The Ties That Bind
The Washington Post's recent article on the surprises that the biometric database is turning in among those arrested abroad shows in part the ties that bind terrorist and criminal groups.

It also shows the power of sharing data across institutional lines, as well as the inherent issues related to individual privacy that will have to be navigated as the we move forward.

What the biometric database that has been developed since 9/11 shows is that many of those arrested in Iraq, Somalia, Colombia and elsewhere are wanted criminals in the United States. The hit rate is above 1 percent, which may not seem like a lot, but offers only a glimpse into the number of criminals now participating in wars against the United States.

These criminal records, matched by fingerprints, and is some cases iris scans and other measures, show just how vulnerable the United is should terrorists (whether Islamist extremists or other groups) choose to attack.

"I found the number stunning," said Frances Fragos Townsend, a security consultant and former assistant to the president for homeland security. "It suggested to me that this was going to give us far greater insight into the relationships between individuals fighting against U.S. forces in the theater and potential U.S. cells or support networks here in the United States."

So, many people who lived here, know the system and voluntarily or involuntarily leave to join radical Islamist movements abroad or carry out terrorist activities with other groups. And the ones that are known are those who have had the misfortune to get arrested and leave a criminal record.

Imagine how many others there must be.

The heart of the program is this:

Analysts are not just trying to identify the prints on the bomb. They want to find out who the bomb-carrier associates with. Who he calls. Who calls him. That could lead to the higher-level operatives who planned and financed attacks.

That, in effect, is looking at the person's network, rather than just the individual. It is the only way to get at and degrade closed terrorist and criminal groups. It is a concept that is only now being applied in a serious way in counter-terrorism.

Steve Nixon, a director at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the effort is key to national security.

"When we look at the road and the challenges, globalization and the spread of technology has empowered small groups of individuals, bad guys, to be more powerful than at any other time in history," he said. "We have to know who these people are when we encounter them. A lot of what we're doing in intelligence now is trying to identify a person. Biometrics is a key element of that."

There are constant dangers of misidentification and the mistakenly targeted individuals. This will become more acute as more nations join in building a more global database, primarily through Interpol. Lives can be ruined easily through carelessness and faulty methods.

But, with the proper safeguards, the program can be extremely useful in identifying the ties that bind those who have been here and those who want to return to harm us.
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