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Local police want better sharing of intelligence

March 18, 2009

Local police want better sharing of intelligence

Nonfederal law enforcement officials today told a House subcommittee how homeland security intelligence could be refined for their needs. Also, civil-liberties advocates told that same panel how current homeland security intelligence efforts pose a threat to citizens’ rights.

The session examined the government’s effort to gather and share homeland security intelligence between officials from different levels of government and the increased involvement of nonfederal authorities in those counterterrorism efforts. The efforts rely heavily on information technology to share information about threats and criminal intelligence through several programs that include state and local intelligence fusion centers.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee that held the session, said homeland security intelligence performed “the right way” can save countless lives, but “done the wrong way” can hurt civil liberties.

Advocates for homeland security intelligence efforts say state, local and tribal authorities are in the best position to detect and prevent terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, critics contend those efforts can lead to collecting information on persons involved in noncriminal behavior, and lack clear definitions and privacy protections.

State, local and tribal authorities have gotten large grants from the Homeland Security Department in recent years to bolster information-sharing efforts, but nonfederal authorities today told Harman’s panel they need to be fully included in the homeland security intelligence process. The homeland security information-sharing programs include DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis (OIA), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE) and the FBI.

Douglas Gillespie, the sheriff of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee for the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said DHS and the FBI had made progress in incorporating nonfederal authorities into efforts, but “there is still significant room for improvement as state, local and tribal law enforcement strives to be full partners with the federal government in the fight to keep America safe.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that OIA should make it a priority to analyze relevant state, local, tribal and private sector information, and compare that information with national intelligence. He said that office should be refocused.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, said homeland security intelligence was a very broad concept, and DHS risked duplicating the efforts of the FBI and the ODNI’s PM-ISE.

“With several different federal agencies responsible for intelligence collection and analysis, and several different mechanisms for sharing intelligence with state and local authorities, DHS intelligence operations risk being redundant or even superfluous,” she said.

Fredrickson also reiterated the ACLU’s long-standing position that fusion centers lack proper oversight and accountability. The centers are locally owned and operated, but DHS has directed more than $327 million in funding to the centers between fiscal 2004 and 2008.

In a recent speech at the National Fusion Center Conference, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano emphasized her commitment to the centers and the role that DHS would play in sharing information with nonfederal authorities. She also said that fusion centers have different roles than FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which also interact with nonfederal authorities.

Joan McNamara, assistant commanding officer for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau, told the panel about the LAPD’s Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program, which has served as a model for a pilot program being implemented nationally by the ODNI’s PM-ISE. In addition, she said the LAPD has worked closely with privacy and civil liberties advocates to deal with their concerns.

The SAR program involves standardizing how authorities report, track and share information on observed behaviors that have traditionally been linked to preparation for terrorist activities and, in turn, allows authorities to detect relevant patterns of suspicious activity. McNamara said SAR reports are carefully scrutinized and that her department trains front-line employees and analytic workers to distinguish between behaviors associated with criminal activity and those that are constitutionally protected.

“The SAR program takes the emphasis off of the racial or ethnic characteristics of individuals and places it on detecting behaviors and activities with potential links to terrorism-related criminal activity,” she said.

John Cohen, a senior adviser to the PM-ISE who in that role serves as a liaison to DHS, said the SAR process will help officers focus their attention to specific behaviors.

“The question becomes how do you look at that information which — at the point it is gathered — is unclear whether it is terrorism related,” he said.

Meanwhile, some civil-liberties advocates are concerned about the recording, sharing and dissemination of information on activities that may not be criminal.

“We have a parallel system right beside the criminal-intelligence system that allows the sharing of personally identifiable information that doesn’t meet” the threshold of being considered criminal activity, Gregory Nojeim, director of the project on freedom, security and technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said after the hearing. “So the question is what do you do about it, and that’s what I think the subcommittee is on the verge of starting to wrestle with.”

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