In New York's Grand Central Terminal, standing watch BO ZAUNDERS–CORBIS
Despite a troubled history, police across the nation are keeping tabs
on ordinary Americans
In the Atlanta suburbs of DeKalb County, local officials wasted no time after
the 9/11 attacks. The second-most-populous county in Georgia, the area is home
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI's regional headquarters,
and other potential terrorist targets. Within weeks of the attacks, officials
there boasted that they had set up the nation's first local department of homeland
security. Dozens of other communities followed, and, like them, DeKalb County
put in for--and got--a series of generous federal counterterrorism grants. The
county received nearly $12 million from Washington, using it to set up, among
other things, a police intelligence unit.
The outfit stumbled in 2002, when two of its agents were assigned to follow
around the county executive. Their job: to determine whether he was being tailed--not
by al Qaeda but by a district attorney investigator looking into alleged misspending.
A year later, one of its plainclothes agents was seen photographing a handful
of vegan activists handing out antimeat leaflets in front of a HoneyBaked Ham
store. Police arrested two of the vegans and demanded that they turn over notes,
on which they'd written the license-plate number of an undercover car, according
to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is now suing the county. An Atlanta
Journal-Constitution editorial neatly summed up the incident: "So now we
know: Glazed hams are safe in DeKalb County."
Glazed hams aren't the only items that America's local cops are protecting
from dubious threats. U.S. News has identified nearly a dozen cases in which
city and county police, in the name of homeland security, have surveilled or
harassed animal-rights and antiwar protesters, union activists, and even library
patrons surfing the Web. Unlike with Washington's warrantless domestic surveillance
program, little attention has been focused on the role of state and local authorities
in the war on terrorism. A U.S.News inquiry found that federal officials have
funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into once discredited state and local
police intelligence operations. Millions more have gone into building up regional
law enforcement databases to unprecedented levels. In dozens of interviews,
officials across the nation have stressed that the enhanced intelligence work
is vital to the nation's security, but even its biggest boosters worry about
a lack of training and standards. "This is going to be the challenge,"
says Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, "to ensure that while getting
bin Laden we don't transgress over the law. We've been burned so badly in the
past--we can't do that again."
Rap sheets. Chief Bratton is referring to the infamous city
"Red Squads" that targeted civil rights and antiwar groups in the
1960s and 1970s (Page 48). Veteran police officers say no one in law enforcement
wants a return to the bad old days of domestic spying. But civil liberties watchdogs
warn that with so many cops looking for terrorists, real and imagined, abuses
may be inevitable. "The restrictions on police spying are being removed,"
says attorney Richard Gutman, who led a 1974 class action lawsuit against the
Chicago police that obtained hundreds of thousands of pages of intelligence
files. "And I don't think you can rely on the police to regulate themselves."
Good or bad, intelligence gathering by local police departments is back. Interviews
with police officers, homeland security officials, and privacy experts reveal
a transformation among state and local law enforcement.
Among the changes:
Since 9/11, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have poured
over a half-billion dollars into building up local and state police intelligence
operations. The funding has helped create more than 100 police intelligence
units reaching into nearly every state.
To qualify for federal homeland security grants, states were told to assemble
lists of "potential threat elements"--individuals or groups suspected
of possible terrorist activity. In response, state authorities have come up
with thousands of loosely defined targets, ranging from genuine terrorists to
biker gangs and environmentalists.
Guidelines for protecting privacy and civil liberties have lagged far behind
the federal money. After four years of doling out homeland security grants to
police departments, federal officials released guidelines for the conduct of
local intelligence operations only last year; the standards are voluntary and
are being implemented slowly.
The resurgence of police intelligence operations is being accompanied by a
revolution in law enforcement computing. Rap sheets, intelligence reports, and
public records are rapidly being pooled into huge, networked computer databases.
Much of this is a boon to crime fighting, but privacy advocates say the systems
are wide open to abuse.
Behind the windfall in federal funding is broad agreement in Washington on
two areas: first, that local cops are America's front line of defense against
terrorism; and second, that the law enforcement and intelligence communities
must do a far better job of sharing information with state and local police.
As a report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police stressed: "All
terrorism is local." Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was arrested
by a state trooper after a traffic stop. And last year, local police in Torrance,
Calif., thwarted what the FBI says could have been America's worst incident
since 9/11--planned attacks on military sites and synagogues in and around Los
Angeles by homegrown jihadists.
The numbers tell the story: There are over 700,000 local, state, and tribal
police officers in the United States, compared with only 12,000 FBI agents.
But getting the right information to all those eyes and ears hasn't gone especially
well. The government's failure at "connecting the dots," as the 9/11
commission put it, was key to the success of al Qaeda's fateful hijackings in
2001. Three of the hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, were pulled
over in traffic stops before the attacks, yet local cops had no inkling they
might be on terrorist watch lists. A National Criminal Intelligence Sharing
Plan, released by the Justice Department in 2003, found no shortage of problems
in sharing information among local law enforcement: a lack of trust and communication;
lack of funding for a national intelligence network; lack of database connectivity;
a shortage of intelligence analysts, software, and training; and a lack of standards
The flood of post-9/11 funding and attention, however, has started making a
difference, officials say. Indeed, it has catalyzed reforms already underway
in state and local law enforcement, giving a boost to what reformers call intelligence-led
policing--a kind of 21st-century crime fighting driven by computer databases,
intelligence gathering, and analysis. "This is a new paradigm, a new philosophy
of policing," says the LAPD's Bratton, who previously served as chief of
the New York Police Department. In that job, Bratton says, he spent 5 percent
of his time on counterterrorism; today, in Los Angeles, he spends 50 percent.
The key to counterterrorism work, Bratton adds, is intelligence.
The change is "huge, absolutely huge," says Michigan State University's
David Carter, the author of Law Enforcement Intelligence. "Intelligence used
to be a dirty word. But it's a more thoughtful process now." During the 1980s
and 1990s, intelligence units were largely confined to large police departments
targeting drug smugglers and organized crime, but the national plan now being
pushed by Washington calls for every law enforcement agency to develop some intelligence
capability. Experts estimate that well over 100 police departments, from big-city
operations to small county sheriffs'offices, have now established intelligence
units of one kind or another. Hundreds of local detectives are also working with
federal agents on FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which have nearly tripled
from 34 before 9/11 to 100 today. And over 6,000 state and local cops now have
federal security clearances, allowing them to see classified intelligence reports.
"The front line." Some police departments have grown
as sophisticated as those of the feds. The LAPD has some 80 cops working counterterrorism,
while other big units now exist in Atlanta, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Then there's
the NYPD, which is in a class by itself--with a thousand officers assigned to
homeland security. The Big Apple's intelligence chief is a former head of CIA
covert operations; its counterterrorism chief is an ex-State Department counterterrorism
coordinator. The NYPD has officers based in a half-dozen countries, and its
counterterrorism agents visit some 200 businesses a week to check on suspicious
Many of the nation's new intelligence units are dubbed "fusion centers."
Run by state or local law enforcement, these regional hubs pool information
from multiple jurisdictions. From a mere handful before 9/11, fusion centers
now exist in 31 states, with a dozen more to follow. Some focus exclusively
on terrorism; others track all manner of criminal activity. Federal officials
hope to eventually see 70 fusion centers nationwide, providing a coast-to-coast
intelligence blanket. This vision was noted by President Bush in a 2003 speech:
"All across our country we'll be able to tie our terrorist information
to local information banks so that the front line of defeating terror becomes
activated and real, and those are the local law enforcement officials."
Intelligence centers are among the hottest trends in law enforcement. Last
year, Massachusetts opened its Commonwealth Fusion Center, which boasts 18 analysts
and 23 field-intelligence officers. The state of California is spending $15
million on a string of four centers this year, and north Texas and New Jersey
are each setting up six. The best, officials say, are focused broadly and are
improving their ability to counter sophisticated crimes that include not only
terrorism but fraud, racketeering, and computer hacking. The federal Department
of Homeland Security, which has bankrolled start-ups of many of the centers,
has big plans for the emerging network. Jack Tomarchio, the agency's new deputy
director of intelligence, told a law enforcement conference in March of plans
to embed up to three DHS agents and intelligence analysts at every site. "The
states want a very close synergistic relationship with the feds," he explained
to U.S. News. "Nobody wants to play by the old rules. The old rules basically
gave us 9/11."
"Reasonable suspicion." The problem, skeptics say,
is that no one is quite sure what the new rules are. "Hardly anyone knows
what a fusion center should do," says Paul Wormeli of the Integrated Justice
Information Systems Institute, a Justice Department-backed training and technology
center. "Some states have responded by putting 10 state troopers in a room
to look at databases. That's a ridiculous approach." Another law enforcement
veteran, deeply involved with the fusion centers, expressed similar frustration.
"The money has been moved without guidance or structure, technical assistance,
or training," says the official, who is not authorized to speak publicly.
There are now guidelines, he adds, "but they're not binding on anyone."
In the past year, the Justice Department has issued standards for local police
on fusion centers and privacy issues, but they are only advisory. Most federal
funding for the centers now comes from the Department of Homeland Security, but
DHS also requires no intelligence standards from its grantees.
At the state level, regulations on police spying vary widely, but a general
rule of thumb comes from the Justice Department's internal guidelines that forbid
intelligence gathering on individuals unless there is a "reasonable suspicion"
of criminal activity. Since the reforms of the 1970s, the FBI says its agents
have followed this standard; Justice Department regulations require local police
who receive federal funding to do the same in maintaining any intelligence files.
But there is considerable leeway at the local level, and since 2001, judges
have watered down police spying limits in Chicago and New York. The federal
regs, moreover, have not stopped a parade of questionable cases.
Suspicion of spying is so rife among antiwar activists, who have loudly protested
White House policy on Iraq, that some begin meetings by welcoming undercover
cops who might be present. "People know and believe their activities are
being monitored," says Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for
Peace and Justice, the country's largest antiwar coalition. There is some evidence
to back this up. Documents and videotapes obtained from lawsuits against the
NYPD reveal that its undercover officers have joined antiwar and even bicycle-rider
rallies. In at least one case, an apparent undercover officer incited a crowd
by faking his arrest. In Fresno, Calif., activists learned in 2003 that their
group, Peace Fresno, had been infiltrated by a local sheriff's deputy--piecing
it together after the man died in a car crash and his obituary appeared in the
The California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, a $7 million fusion center
run by the state Department of Justice, also ran into trouble in 2003 when it
warned of potential violence at an antiwar protest at the port of Oakland. Mike
Van Winkle, then a spokesman for the center, explained his concern to the Oakland
Tribune: "You can make an easy kind of a link that, if you have a protest
group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international
terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest. You can almost argue that
a protest against [the war] is a terrorist act." Officials quickly distanced
themselves from the statement. The center's staff had confused political protest
with terrorism, announced California's attorney general, who oversees the office.
"Absurd" threats. But this expansive view of homeland
security has at times also extended to union activists and even library Web
surfers. In February 2006 near Washington, D.C., two Montgomery County, Md.,
homeland security agents walked into a suburban Bethesda library and forcefully
warned patrons that viewing Internet pornography was illegal. (It is not.) A
county official later called the incident "regrettable" and said those
officers had been reassigned. Similarly, in 2004, two plainclothes Contra Costa
County sheriff's deputies monitored a protest by striking Safeway workers in
nearby San Francisco, identifying themselves to union leaders as homeland security
Further blurring the lines over what constitutes "homeland security"
has been a push by Washington for states to identify possible terrorists. In
2003, the Department of Homeland Security began requiring states to draft strategic
plans that included figures on how many "potential threat elements"
existed in their backyards. The definition of suspected terrorists was fairly
loose--PTEs were groups or individuals who might use force or violence "to
intimidate or coerce" for a goal "possibly political or social in
nature." In response, some states came up with alarming numbers. Most of
the reports are not available publicly, but U.S. News obtained nine state homeland
security plans and found that local officials have identified thousands of "potential"
terrorists. There are striking disparities, as well. South Carolina, for example,
found 68 PTEs, but neighboring North Carolina uncovered 506. Vermont and New
Hampshire found none at all. Most impressive was Texas, where in 2004 investigators
identified 2,052 potential threat elements. One top veteran of the FBI's counterterrorism
force calls the Texas number "absurd." Included among the threats
cited by the states, sources say, are biker gangs, militia groups, and "save
the whales" environmentalists.
"The PTE methodology was flawed," says a federal intelligence official
familiar with the process, "and it's no longer being used." Nonetheless,
these "threat elements" have, in some cases, become the basis for
intelligence gathering by local and state police. Concern over the process prompted
the ACLU in New Jersey to sue the state, demanding that eight towns turn over
documents on PTEs identified by local police.
Another source of alarm for civil liberties watchdogs is the explosion in police
computing power. Spurred by a 2004 White House directive ordering better information
sharing, the Justice Department has poured tens of millions of dollars into
expanding and tying together law enforcement databases and networks. In many
respects, the changes are long overdue, yanking police into the 21st century
and letting them use the tools that bankers, private investigators, and journalists
routinely employ. From TV shows like 24 and CSI, Americans are accustomed to
scenes of police accessing the most arcane data with a few keyboard clicks.
The reality couldn't be more different. Law enforcement was slow to get on the
technology bandwagon, and its information systems have developed into a patchwork
of networks and databases that cannot talk to one another--even within the same
county. Rap sheets, prison records, and court files are often all on different
systems. This means that days or even weeks can pass before court-issued warrants
show up on police wanted lists--leaving criminals out on the streets.
States and cities began linking up their systems in the 1990s, but since 9/11
their progress has been dramatic. At least 38 states are working on some 200 projects
tying together their criminal justice records. Concerned over disjointed police
networks around its key bases, the Navy's Criminal Investigative Service is funding
projects in Norfolk, Va., and four other port cities, creating huge "data
warehouses" stocked with crime files from dozens of law enforcement agencies.
The FBI is also running pilot database centers in the St. Louis and Seattle areas
in which the bureau makes its case files available to police. To local cops who
have long complained about the FBI's lack of sharing, the development is downright
revolutionary. "It made people nervous as hell, including me," says
the FBI's Thomas Bush, who oversaw the initial program and now runs the FBI's
Criminal Justice Information Services Division. "The technical aspect is
easy, but you need to have the trust of the community and the security to safeguard
The benefits of all this are undeniable. Armed with the latest information,
police will be better able to catch crooks and spot criminal trends. But in
this digital age, with so much data available about individual Americans, the
lines between what is acceptable investigation and what is intrusive spying
can quickly grow unclear. Consider the case of Matrix. Backed by $12 million
in federal funds, at its peak in 2004 the Matrix system tapped into law enforcement
agencies from a dozen states. Using "data mining" technology, its
search engine ripped through billions of public records and matched them with
police files, creating instant dossiers. In the days after 9/11, Matrix researchers
searched out individuals with what they called "high terrorist factor"
scores, providing federal and state authorities a list of 120,000 "suspects."
Law enforcement officials loved the system and made nearly 2 million queries
to it. But what alarmed privacy advocates was the mixing of public data with
police files, profiling techniques that smacked of fishing expeditions, and
the fact that all these sensitive data were housed in a private corporation.
Hounded by bad publicity and concerned that Matrix might be breaking privacy
laws, states began pulling out of the system. Then, early last year, the Justice
Department quietly cut off funding.
Matrix no longer exists, but similar projects are underway across the country,
including one run by the California Department of Justice. Having learned from
Matrix's mistakes, users are employing what tech specialists call "distributed
computing." Instead of creating a single, vast database, they rapidly access
information from sites in different states, often with a single query. The effect
is essentially the same. "If people knew what we were looking at, they'd
throw a fit," says a database trainer at one prominent police department.
Hacker's discovery. Another concern is the quality--and security--of
all that information. In Minnesota, the state-run Multiple Jurisdiction Network
Organization ran into controversy after linking together nearly 200 law enforcement
agencies and over 8 million records. State Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican
who oversees privacy issues, found much to be alarmed about when a local hacker
contacted her after breaking into the system. The hacker had yanked out files
on Holberg herself, showing she was classified as a "suspect" based
on a neighbor's old complaint about where she parked her car. "We had a
real mess in Minnesota," Holberg later wrote. "There was no effective
policy for individuals to review the data in the system, let alone correct inaccuracies."
In late 2003, state officials shut down the system amid concerns that it violated
privacy laws in its handling of records on juvenile offenders and gun permits.
Such problems threaten to grow as law enforcement expands its reach with increased
intelligence and computing power. The key to avoiding trouble, say experts, is
ensuring that concerns over privacy and civil liberties are dealt with head-on.
In a recent advisory aimed at police intelligence units, the Department of Justice
stressed that success in safeguarding civil liberties "depends on appointing
a high-level member of your agency to champion the initiative." But that
message apparently hasn't gotten through, judging from the response at a conference
sponsored by the Justice Department a few weeks back on information sharing. Among
the crowd of some 200 local and state officials were intelligence officers, database
managers, and chiefs of police. When a speaker asked who in the audience was working
with privacy officials, not a single hand went up.
As Washington doles out millions of dollars for police intelligence, its reliance
on voluntary guidelines may backfire, warn critics, who worry that abuses could
wreck the important work that needs to be done. "We're still diddling around,"
says police technology expert Wormeli. "We're not setting clear policy
on what we put in our databases. Should a patrol officer in Tallahassee be able
to look at my credit report? Most people would say, 'Hell, no.'" Current
regulations on criminal intelligence, he adds, were written before the computer
age. "They were great in their day, but they need to be updated and expanded."
Civil liberties watchdogs like attorney Gutman, meanwhile, want to know how
efforts to stop al Qaeda have ended up targeting animal rights advocates, labor
leaders, and antiwar protesters. "You've got all this money and all this
equipment--you're going to find someone to use it on," he warns. "If
there aren't any external checks, there's going to be an inevitable drift toward
abuses." But boosters of intelligence-led policing say that today's cops
are too smart to repeat mistakes of the old Red Squads. "We're trying to
develop policies to build trust and relationships, not spy," says Illinois
State Police Deputy Director Kenneth Bouche. "We've learned a better way
to do it." Perhaps. But for now, at least, the jury on this case is still
With Monica M. Ekman and Angie C. Marek