Kansas' facility looks for patterns to crime
About 20 states have plans for counterterrorism centers, though few are functioning to capacity.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
TOPEKA, Kan. -- In an underground room of the State Defense Building, behind two locked doors, an office hums with activity.
Inside this concrete bunker left over from the Cold War, two televisions flicker with images from CNN and Fox News. A bank of glowing computers lines one wall. Another is adorned with maps of Iraq and Kansas, just two of the places the Kansas National Guard now serves.
Three men hunch over the computers. Their fingers tap through e-mailed reports from law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The most interesting incidents are compiled into a daily bulletin, typically about three pages, distributed to law officers statewide.
For a year, the state where the nation's most notorious domestic terrorist hatched his plans and acquired bomb materials has been operating the Kansas Threat Integration Center, trying to spot the next Timothy McVeigh or other terrorist threat.
"KTIC is a one-stop shop of information," said Tod Bunting, who is Kansas' homeland security director and adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard.
To privacy experts and civil-rights advocates, the intelligence centers popping up across the country are a source of concern. They say the United States has a poor record when it comes to monitoring information on ordinary people, especially during the Cold War and Vietnam eras.
Looking for trends to prevent crime
By 2007 every state will be required to operate a regional terrorism information center.
Already, about 20 states have submitted plans for counterterrorism fusion centers, but only a few are fully operational. Kansas is spending about $200,000 a year to run its center, which is staffed by a National Guard member, a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent and a Kansas Highway Patrol officer.
Bunting compares Kansas' counterterrorism system to watching the roiling clouds of an approaching storm and monitoring it with weather reports. Officers can learn what's happening in other states, share any uneasiness or suspicion, look for people conducting target surveillance or see an emerging trend. The information raises an officer's awareness that something bigger might be looming.
Just like viewing a pointillist painting, the idea is to step back, connect the dots and see the bigger picture, Bunting said.
"It's a way to see a pattern before a crime is committed. We've read over the 911 report. Some things could be mitigated better if people shared information."
In one bulletin this summer, for example, officers learned of bomb threats at four Wal-Mart stores in Kansas, a person using a bogus name to apply to be a flight instructor in Wichita, an ultralight aircraft flying over a nuclear power plant in Iowa. It is up to law enforcement authorities to determine whether the incidents are connected.
The idea to create an "intelligence fusion center" where agencies would share information was first discussed in 2000 by a Washington advisory panel to the Defense Department. But the CIA said it could not share its sensitive information with others, according to U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress in 2003 authorized the National Counterterrorism Center, a federal model of interagency sharing.
Sharing information is crucial, authorities say, pointing to big misses in the past. The New York Times reported recently that a secret military intelligence unit known as Able Danger mined computer data in 1999 and 2000, tracking terrorism suspects inside the United States. Able Danger identified four of the Sept. 11 suicide hijackers as Al-Qaida operatives, including two pilots, more than a year before the attacks, The Times reported. But the group's information was not passed on to the FBI.
Possible targets in Kansas
Each state tailors its fusion center to its own vulnerabilities. In Kansas, potential targets include vast rural areas at risk for agri-terrorism, as well as Fort Riley and big events such as NASCAR races.
Bunting said compiling bits of information from incident reports into a roundup of alerts is the best way to give officers all over the state a quick daily update.
"Our primary concern is that ... law enforcement people on the street have as much information as possible of emerging threats," he said.
The Kansas center does not have a written policy for what it does with information, said Joy Moser, a spokeswoman for the Kansas National Guard. But Bunting said it does not keep files on individuals.
"We pass everything on," he said. "Any surveillance or investigation is going to be done by the people paid to do that."
Despite such assurances, privacy experts and civil rights advocates remain skeptical. Domestic spying has a record of abuses inside the government, said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Went too far
"In the '60s, states did [intelligence gathering], but they got burned," he said. "You always have the problem of intelligence activities used for political intelligence," or in violation of constitutional rights.
"There's no model. No rule book," Carafano said. "People are guessing how's the best way to do it. And people, you can expect, will overstep their bounds."
Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer who now is a professor of constitutional law at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, has seen the military overstep its bounds. He uncovered abuses by the Army's domestic spying operations in the Vietnam War.
At the time, Pyle taught constitutional law at the U.S. Army Intelligence School in Maryland. When he learned of the abuses, he recruited 125 former intelligence agents to testify to Congress and in court about their surveillances.
His taxes were audited, he said, and false, damaging information about him was placed in public records. Pyle's efforts led to the Army destroying its files, and Congress placed strict limits on domestic military spying.