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Agencies don’t often share tips on potential terrorist activity

Mark J. Terrill/AP file photo

Nearly half of federal agencies are not sharing documented incidents of potential terrorist activity with U.S. intelligence centers, according to officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The Homeland Security and Justice departments since 2008 have been teaching federal officials and police to deposit, through a secure network, reports of suspicious behavior while being mindful of civil liberties. The point of the technology is to piece together terrorist plots before they are executed.

But, some criminal justice experts say, a major obstacle is dampening the effectiveness of the initiative. Work is slow-going in connecting local agencies to fusion centers, intelligence facilities partly funded by the government that vet reports for possible distribution through the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. The system is a virtualized inventory of tips that any federal, state or local government authority can search.

When asked, “How often does your agency forward all validated [reports] to the NSI (if at all)?” nearly half -- 46 percent -- of federal departments told ODNI that they were not frequently sharing leads. In a new report to Congress, the Information Sharing Environment, an agency within ODNI, stated that 16 percent of agencies said they never submit notices, 15 percent reported they rarely file, and 15 percent said they sometimes share.

Most federal agencies -- 83 percent -- are filing suspicious activity reports but not very often, according to the assessment. The 20 agencies represented in the survey include the Energy, Health and Human Services, State and Treasury departments, as well as the CIA and many Defense Department intelligence agencies.

The government defines suspicious activity as behavior or incidents that could portend preparations related to terrorism, crime, espionage or other illicit schemes.

The evaluation does not reveal which agencies are not sharing frequently, but comments in the report from the FBI, DHS and the Interior Department show those agencies are active participants.

Privacy groups consistently attack the program as a goose chase that runs over the human rights of Americans and foreigners. They have pointed out that some behaviors deemed potential terrorist activity are tourist habits, such as snapping photos of a monument.

One problem with shuttling reports to fusion centers is officers in the field, even years after the program’s inception, lack training in how to create the proper records, said Paul Wormeli, Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute executive director emeritus and a consultant on the project. “Some agencies still just rely on the old manual system of getting tips from the public over the telephone, which is insufficient,” he said.

In addition, it takes time and money to tweak police software so that it works with the system supporting the information exchanges, Wormeli said. And turf wars sometimes get in the way of progress. “There is the usual politics between the state authority and the local autonomy that often keeps people from doing the right thing,” he said. Wormeli added the ODNI and Justice are working to resolve these issues.

“This is a serious problem because unless we are able to convince all the local agencies to participate and to submit their SARs to the fusion center, we create the very real possibility that we will miss detecting the next Mohammed Atta who goes around taking flying lessons and passing up on the lecture of how to land his aircraft,” he said. Atta allegedly hijacked one of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

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