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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)

Officials say an incident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 2004 shows the center's effectiveness. State transportation police stopped an SUV after a veiled passenger was seen videotaping the bridge in a suspicious manner. The officers called the fusion center, which discovered that the driver was an unindicted co-conspirator in a Chicago case involving Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

Eisenberg contacted a prosecutor in Chicago, who quickly obtained an arrest warrant for the driver as a material witness in the Hamas case.

"The 9/11 commission's major criticism was that people didn't talk to each other," said Dennis R. Schrader, Maryland's director of homeland security. "Well, this is an example of how you had state, local and federal all working together. . . . It's really pretty unbelievable."

To some, though, the incident raised questions about what constitutes dangerous behavior.

The driver, Ismail Elbarasse, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian origin living in Annandale, was quickly released on bond, and the material-witness warrant eventually expired. He was not charged with a crime. His family said the veiled woman, Elbarasse's wife, was simply taping the bay while returning from the beach.

"It was regarded in the community as just a case of overreaction to seeing somebody in a head scarf videotaping," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Civil liberties advocates worry that the fledgling fusion centers could stray into monitoring people engaged in lawful activities, as some members of new police homeland security units have done. A Georgia homeland security officer, for example, was discovered photographing a protest by vegans at a HoneyBaked Ham store in 2003. Privacy advocates are also concerned about the vast amount of information some fusion centers collect -- and the sometimes vague limits on its use and storage.

"In Phoenix, we're talking about something like 250,000 police reports a year: names, addresses, contact information, business cards, tickets, all the kinds of information that is gathered and that can be of tremendous value at a national analytical level," said John L. Buchanan, Phoenix assistant police chief. He added, however, that "we've really got to be cognizant of the risk" of abuse.

"Fusion center" is a military coinage embraced by civilian homeland security authorities after Sept. 11, 2001. But turf fights involving the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and national intelligence agencies, as well as local jurisdictions, have delayed the centers' development two years after Congress passed laws to change intelligence.

To streamline the unwieldy domestic intelligence structure, White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend laid out a new U.S. road map for intelligence collection on Nov. 27. It urges that fusion centers be incorporated in a national Information Sharing Environment (ISE).

To support the centers' growing role, and to address complaints from states that they cannot pay for them alone, the White House is debating whether to increase funding for them in 2008 and to lift a ban on paying for personnel.

Federal officials emphasize that the centers will be led from the grass roots. Charles E. Allen, chief intelligence officer for the Homeland Security Department, said the centers will be "all hazards, all crime, all threats," targeted not just at terrorism but also at transnational gangs, immigrant smuggling and other threats.

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