Officials briefed lawmakers today on the challenges of developing a domestic intelligence-sharing network to thwart terror, while civil libertarians warned of infringement on the rights of groups that espouse unpopular but nonviolent views.
The hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment examined the status of the congressionally-mandated Information Sharing Environment (ISE), formally established in 2004 to detect terrorist plots before they are carried out.
The ISE relies in part on the new national network of at least 70 state and regional intelligence fusion centers, where local, state and federal officials generate intelligence products by analyzing information including suspicious activity reports (SARs).
Local police officers, once looked upon as first responders, are now "first preventers," said Joan T. McNamara, assistant commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Counterterrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
"Local police were now considered an integral part of efforts to protect the nation from a variety of threats –including that posed by domestic and international terrorist," she said.
But while state and local officials pass information to the federal government, Washington must in turn share more information with police officers on the street, state and local law enforcement officials said.
In 2007 Congress established the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group (ITACG), co-located with the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), to help the intelligence community feed first preventers information.
Yet ITACG isn't doing what it was created to, said Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who spoke on behalf of two associations representing major city police chiefs and major counties' sheriffs.
"ITACG is not allowed to share intelligence with the local agencies that it is intended to serve," Gillespie said. "Rather, ITACG is limited to editing intelligence and returning those products to originating agencies where the information may or may not reach state and local law enforcement agencies."
Gillespie told lawmakers that the NCTC, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have to work together to ensure information gets to the front lines.
Gillespie also expressed frustration at the speed with which federal agencies issue security clearances, and the persistent refusal of some federal agencies to recognize clearances issued by other federal agencies.
"Refusal by one federal agency to routinely accept the clearances issued by another is a disruptive policy that contradicts information sharing and threatens our progress toward realizing the goals of this committee," Gillespie said.
Witness Gregory T. Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a electronic privacy rights group, said the problem isn't not enough information but too much information.
"The security 'bang per byte' of information gathered may be diminishing," Nojeim said. "While stovepiping was yesterday’s problem, tomorrow’s problem may be pipe clogging, as huge amounts of information are being gathered without apparent focus."
Nojeim worries that data collection procedures, such as SARs, are casting too wide of a net that will ensnare innocent people and mistakenly label them a terrorist
"The SARs system is just getting off the ground, but so far, the standards for the program suggest that much innocent activity will be tracked," Nojeim said. "For example, photographing bridges is described as a suspicious activity, even though such sites are regularly photographed by tourists, journalists and photography buffs."
Civil libertarians also worry that this new homeland security intelligence system will be used to monitor people with nonviolent but unpopular political beliefs. From March 2005 until May 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discovered that the Maryland State Police were surveiling the activities of nonviolent antiwar and anti-death penalty groups, and designating them terrorist groups. Last month the Washington Post reported that DHS provided state officials information about one of the group's activities.
Then nine days ago, the ACLU produced a leaked intelligence bulletin from a Texas fusion center asking law enforcement officers to report on the activities of Islamic and anti-war lobbying groups and worried about Muslims spreading sharia law inside the United States.
"The ACLU has long warned that these state, local, and regional intelligence fusion centers lacked proper oversight and accountability and we hope the discovery of this shockingly inappropriate report leads to much needed examination and reform," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office.
Civil libertarians recommend that the federal government adopt strict information collection and control guidelines, especially for state and local fusion centers that receive federal funds.
"If homeland security intelligence is done the right way, countless lives can be saved," said subcommittee chair Jane Harman (D-CA). And if it's not, she added later, "then what we’ll have is the 'thought police' – and we’ll be the worse for it."