Localities Operate Intelligence Centers To Pool Terror Data

Outside Baltimore, in the Maryland fusion center's
Outside Baltimore, in the Maryland fusion center's "watch section," watch commander Jeffrey L. Wobbleton, right, speaks with one of the working specialists. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Mary Beth Sheridan and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Frustrated by poor federal cooperation, U.S. states and cities are building their own network of intelligence centers led by police to help detect and disrupt terrorist plots.

The new "fusion centers" are now operating in 37 states, including Virginia and Maryland, and another covers the Washington area, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The centers, which have received $380 million in federal support since the 2001 terrorist attacks, pool and analyze information from local, state and federal law enforcement officials.

The emerging "network of networks" marks a new era of opportunity for law enforcement, according to U.S. officials and homeland security experts. Police are hungry for federal intelligence in an age of homegrown terrorism and more sophisticated crime. For their part, federal law enforcement officials could benefit from a potential army of tipsters -- the 700,000 local and state police officers across the country, as well as private security guards and others being courted by the centers.

But the emerging model of "intelligence-led policing" faces risks on all sides. The centers are popping up with little federal leadership and training, raising fears of overzealousness such as that associated with police "red squads" that spied on civil rights and peace activists decades ago. The centers also face practical obstacles that could limit their effectiveness, including a shortage of money, skilled analysts, and proven relationships with the FBI and Homeland Security.

Still, the centers are emerging as a key element in a sometimes chaotic new domestic intelligence infrastructure, which also includes homeland security units in local police forces and 103 FBI-led terrorism task forces, triple the number that existed before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fusion centers are becoming "part of the landscape for local government," said the incoming D.C. police chief, Cathy Lanier. But she warned that police are navigating a new patchwork of state and federal privacy laws that govern the sharing, collection and storage of information. "We're in a very precarious position right now," she said. "If we lose community support, that is going to be a big deal for local law enforcement."

Traditionally, police had little to do with counterterrorism. But after the 2001 attacks, it became obvious that al-Qaeda members had been preparing not only in far-off Afghan training camps but also in places such as a Gold's Gym in Greenbelt and flight schools in Florida. An unwitting Maryland state trooper stopped one of the future hijackers for speeding on Interstate 95.

"Police officers, deputies and troopers . . . they're going to be the ones that encounter a lot of these [suspicious] things on the road," said Virginia State Police Sgt. Lee Miller, who oversees the state's year-old fusion center in Richmond. "What we're trying to do is provide them the information they need to identify these different things."

The fusion centers range from small conference facilities to high-tech nerve centers with expensive communications networks. Some do investigations, while others focus on information-sharing -- passing tips to the FBI and scanning federal intelligence for developments of interest to local departments. Some have explored the use of controversial data-mining software in keeping with their respective state laws.

Maryland's three-year-old fusion center outside Baltimore offers a glimpse of the new intelligence world. Hidden behind a bolted door with no nameplate in a quiet office park, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center houses members of 23 local, state and federal agencies.

Harvey Eisenberg, an assistant U.S. attorney who helps oversee the center, said police and other government employees are being trained to phone its 24-hour "watch section" when they spot suspicious activity. Calls to the terrorism hotline advertised on the Capital Beltway (800-492-TIPS) are also answered by officers in the watch section.

"You need to educate cops, firefighters, health officials, transportation officials, sanitation workers, to understand the nature of the threat," Eisenberg said. "And not to become super-spies. . . . Constitutionally, they see something, they can report it."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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