When Maryland State Police pulled over Ziad S. Jarrah for a traffic stop two days before he and 18 other terrorists commandeered and crashed four aircraft on September 11, 2001, tragically the officer on the scene had no way of knowing that Jarrah was on a CIA watch list.
Today, state and local officers remain challenged to analyze and share information, say experts. Despite the post-9-11 changes to the intelligence community, including the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), no system is yet in place yet to ensure that police who run across information that could help uncover terrorist cells or activities will know what to do with that data.
The federal government has to find a way to turn state and local officers, who can find information about potential threats more quickly and in far greater quantity than federal officers, into another layer of intelligence officers, says Chad Foster, a policy analyst with the Council of State Governments.
As a part of that process, state and local officers need to be able to make a determination between when something is routine drug trafficking, for example, and when that drug trafficking might be funding terrorism, says John Cohen, current senior homeland security policy advisor for Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts.
“It’s very difficult to make those connections for a number of reasons. One, our information systems are not interlinked,” says Cohen. Second, state and local law enforcement do not have the analytic capacity from the standpoint of training personnel and technology.
“That information, in a consistent manner, does not find its way to the federal analytic process. So it’s not even being evaluated,” he says.
To begin to solve the problem, field personnel who find useful intelligence that they want to pass up the chain need more streamlined ways of getting it to the right person. “There’s still no single jurisdiction to send information to,” says Cohen. It’s not just the FBI. It’s also the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Secret Service, “and they’re not even in the same department as the FBI,” he says.
Some states have taken the first steps by building a single conduit for information traffic in their own jurisdictions. For example, officials in upstate New York and Arizona have opened “fusion centers” where federal, state, and local law enforcement entities are working together daily to share intelligence information and distribute it as appropriate to stakeholders.
The fusion centers can serve as the foundation of a national capacity for the sharing of intelligence information between local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, says Cohen.
Law enforcement offices in those states have benefited from the availability of critical information, a familiarity with other agencies and their procedures, enhanced interagency communications, and “the whole gamut of intangibles that were not being addressed satisfactorily before 9-11,” says Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Better outreach to states to support fusion centers and improve information exchange is one of the goals of the restructuring of the Department of Homeland Security.
But a big challenge remains in reforming the information transaction process so that intelligence can reach officers in the field. The NCTC could add another beneficial piece to the puzzle, Pasco says, or it could become just another bureaucratic layer, further complicating access to information.
“The day we declare victory in the effort to disseminate information is a long way off. That being said, progress has been made,” he says. “Downward communication has improved the most.”
—By Eric Grasser, assistant editor