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."
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.
Thomas E. McNamara, ISE manager under the director of national intelligence, said the centers will be state-driven and "primarily analytical."
Amid such assurances, it remains unclear just how much fusing of information is going on day to day.
Existing efforts are insufficient and to blame for "mixed and at times competing messages" from U.S. officials and limited contributions from state and local leaders, Townsend wrote.
For example, New York City leaders warned of "a specific threat" to the city's transit systems in October 2005, which federal officials simultaneously deemed "noncredible." Meanwhile, U.S. officials say information flowing from local and state agencies is often of limited use.
An April report by the National Governors Association found that dissatisfaction with federal information-sharing was growing among state homeland security directors, with 60 percent unhappy about the specificity of intelligence. In congressional hearings, state officials have complained about a lack of federal security clearances and about overlapping, outdated intelligence databases.
In response, U.S. officials are vowing to speed background checks and to send Homeland Security intelligence officers to work at 18 state and local fusion centers in 2007 and 35 by 2008.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, would go further. He proposed a new law enforcement assistance program to make intelligence-led policing the 21st-century version of community-oriented policing, into which the federal government has poured $11.3 billion since 1994 to pay for 120,000 local officers.
"The federal government is not reaching out well enough to the intelligence needs of the cop on the beat," Thompson said. "We shouldn't need more blood spilled before we take action necessary to make Americans safer."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.