Following bin Laden's death, terrorism tips rise across U.S.

McClatchy NewspapersMay 8, 2011 

WASHINGTON — As a result of a more alert, or perhaps more anxious American public, counterterrorism tips have spiked in the days following the death of Osama bin Laden, law enforcement officials say.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, police would have checked them out. If no crime was discovered, the information might have been forgotten.

Now, many of these clues are being entered into databases across the country and pored over by counterterrorism experts. Depending on the state or city, the data may be retained for years.

While law enforcement officials say the information helps them to connect the dots to prevent the next attack, the avid collection of data raises concerns that police are collecting personal information about Americans who aren't criminals.

The collection effort also comes as domestic spying continues to grow, according to a recent report by the Justice Department.

"It's been a huge boon to the national counterterrorism effort," Clark Ervin, the first inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security said of the tip gathering. "Our officials can't handle the huge volume of information that comes in so they've got to depend on the public to be their eyes and ears."

But Ervin, who now heads a homeland security program at the Aspen Institute, acknowledged that "one person's version of what is suspicious is another person's normal behavior."

"It can obviously be misused," he said.

Most law enforcement officials, however, don't see any reason for controversy.

"It's what cops have been doing for more than 100 years," said Thomas J. O'Reilly, a former New Jersey state police official who now heads the Justice Department's Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. "And I think it's what the citizens expect. If they see something suspicious, they want the police to check it out."

Since the attacks, law enforcement officials have identified about 16 potential terrorist behaviors, such as taking photos of "high-value" terrorist targets. The tips, known as "suspicious activity" reports, are vetted by counterterrorism experts who are trained to know the difference between "tourism and terrorism" behaviors, officials said.

For example, taking a photo of a bridge is legal.

"However, taking photos of a bridge and its security features, documenting security routes and the number of security personnel at the bridge at different times of the day, may be interpreted as suspicious activity," said Mike Dayton, acting secretary of California's emergency management agency.

They also are trained to look for these behaviors rather than focusing on someone's race or ethnicity, officials said.

On average, only about a third of the tips in databases include someone's name, officials said.

"We're more interested in the trends," Dayton said.

But Michael German, a former FBI agent who now advises the American Civil Liberties Union, said the program gives officers such wide discretion that innocent people are being questioned and even arrested based on behaviors that are not illegal.

In 2009, a libertarian activist was arrested after videotaping a protester outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan.

Federal officers forced the activist to the pavement and confiscated video from his camera, according to the ACLU. The software developer for an investment bank filed suit against the federal government and forced officials to acknowledge that he did nothing illegal. But German said it's unclear whether the incident was entered into a database as a "suspicious activity."

"The scenario that we're concerned about is a police officer sees someone they don't like, and now they have this program that allows them to go and harass this person if they have a camera," he said. "They can demand an ID, arrest them and put a name in the database."

After Sept. 11, police and sheriff's departments across the country began transforming databases set up for transit systems or local law enforcement into collection points, or fusion centers, for counterterrorism information.

The federal government boosted funding for the fusion centers so the data could be analyzed by experts.

In the latest push, 30 states have agreed to share their analysis and about 10,000 suspicious activity reports in a federally endorsed system.

In a new campaign with the Madison Avenue sounding slogan, "If you See Something, Say Something," DHS encourages the public to call their local police departments if they spot something suspicious. After high-profile terrorism-related events, cities and states also have been sending out alerts to residents urging them to report anything out of the ordinary to the local police.

"It is likely that an attack may be launched on the United States homeland or U.S. interests abroad," said one such email notice out of Maryland this week. "The key to successfully protecting our safety is to be aware of our surroundings, what is normal versus what is not and report suspicious activity to the authorities."

Many Americans may not even know that their tips have been collected.

Suspicious activity reports range from 911 calls about a deserted car in a neighborhood street, to hospitals reporting stolen badges to police discovering the use of an alias.

With a click of a computer mouse, a local counterterrorism official in Florida can pull up any possible suspicion trends identified in California. States and cities that have set up the system vet the officials who get access. A record is made of it so any possible abuse can be tracked.

But the system is decentralized and local and state law enforcement agencies have varying ways of determining what information to keep.

The Justice Department has concluded that suspicious activity reports do not have to meet the "reasonable suspicion" standard as defined in federal statutes that limit domestic spying.

As a result, different states and even cities may keep more or less information depending on their own privacy policies.

In California, law enforcement officials only input information that raises "reasonable suspicion" as required under the constitution for searches.

Minnesota also strictly limits the input of personal identifying information, while Georgia, Florida and New Jersey allow for more data.

In New Jersey, which gets between five and 15 such tips, the reports don't have to meet the reasonable suspicion test, but the state has its own threshold that includes specifics about possible terrorist behaviors.

"There is still a standard that has to be met," said Maureen Lancaster, chief of New Jersey's intelligence bureau.

Such tips often peak after a high-profile, terrorism-related event, and several of the latest plots to attack the U.S. have been foiled by a tipster. When a college student in Texas was arrested in February for conspiring to blow up dams, nuclear plants and the Dallas home of former President George W. Bush, a chemical company was credited for helping to uncover the plot.

Once the tip is entered into the database, depending on the state, it can stay there for as much as five years before it's determined whether it should be purged.

The data are kept secret, so subjects of the tips are unlikely to know their information is being preserved. If they find out, officials said, they can make a case that it be purged.

By encouraging the reporting of suspicious behavior by the public, the government simply may be trying to justify its existence, German said.

"This is a way to create data," he said.

But law enforcement officials say some police departments are too overwhelmed and understaffed to aggressively participate. Despite bin Laden's death, not every department is sending out alerts to solicit tips.

"Talking to police chiefs, it's mixed in terms of their ability to handle this," said Dayton, who is also an adviser to California's governor on homeland security. "We're encouraging it, but it does have potential to overwhelm call centers."

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