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A decade of evolution in police counterterrorism operations

Editor’s Note: Throughout December, we’ll be featuring commentary and analysis that looks back at the past year and the past decade, or looks ahead to what’s on the horizon for law enforcement. We’ve already presented columns from Larry Jetmore, Terry Dwyer, Brian Willis, Dan Marcou, Dick Fairburn, Ken Wallentine, and Eddie Reyes — if you’ve missed those, be sure to check them out. PoliceOne presents this STRATFOR members-only report with express permission from STRATFOR. It is intended only for publication on PoliceOne and STRATFOR. While this appears under the byline of PoliceOne Contributor Fred Burton, like most STRATFOR analysis this is as a collaborative effort and was written by Burton and the rest of the team at STRATFOR. Watch out for more from some of our top columnists in coming days.

The way U.S. law enforcement conducts counterterrorism operations has changed significantly in the past decade. After the 9/11 attacks, several policies were put in place that gave state and local authorities more resources. However, many challenges remain in combating the threat of terrorism.

One of the most noticeable steps taken by the Bush administration shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, was the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was meant to oversee the myriad federal law enforcement agencies and assist in collecting and disseminating information concerning national security. Counterterrorism programs received huge funding boosts as political will in the country shifted its focus to preventing future terrorist attacks. This increased attention and funding led to the proliferation of intelligence fusion centers around the country. Meanwhile, the Justice Department built upon an existing framework and multiplied the number of FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs). While DHS has counteterrorism duties, the FBI takes the lead on investigating and prosecuting national security counterterrorism cases.

JTTFs comprise federal, state and local law enforcement agents and officers who pool their jurisdictional powers and field intelligence to investigate, charge and prosecute terrorism suspects. Before 9/11, only about 35 JTTF teams existed in the United States. Since 9/11, the number of teams grew to 100. Conversely, intelligence fusion centers did not exist until after 9/11. The centers are designed to be one-stop information shops where open source and law enforcement sensitive information could be collected, analyzed and disseminated to the various agencies sharing the space. Over the past eight years, 70 such centers have opened up around the country — one in each state plus 20 regional centers.

JTTFs and fusion centers have vastly different responsibilities and are thus viewed very differently by the public. JTTFs are the investigative and operational side of counterterrorism and are often cited in terrorism cases (such as the Najibullah Zazi case in New York in September), whereas fusion centers are DHS-funded and are more transparent. Fusion centers serve federal, state and local law enforcement agencies and their product is the analysis of threats. Fusion centers assess the threat environment while JTTFs pursue and attempt to neutralize specific threats.

The overall strategy behind the proliferation of JTTFs and fusion centers has been to elevate the role of state and local law enforcement officers in counterterrorism cases because these officers have a much greater presence on the streets throughout the country. They have superior knowledge of their specific patrol jurisdictions and work as the eyes and ears of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. They are much more likely to come across a terrorism suspect than a federal law enforcement agent simply due to the law of probability. With this new emphasis on state and local law enforcement agencies in counterterrorism efforts comes more training and resources that contribute to combating overall criminal activity, not just terrorism.

For example, counterterrorism training for state and local police has raised awareness and ability to spot preoperational surveillance on targets — one of the key steps of the attack cycle and one that makes terrorists most vulnerable. Suspicious activity such as photographing, recording or repeatedly visiting high-profile sites is much more likely to be noticed now than before. This makes casing a target more challenging for potential attackers. Preoperational surveillance is not unique to terrorism; it is key to the criminal cycle as well. This means that officers’ increased awareness of such activity will help law enforcement cut down on crime.

Officers are more likely now than 10 years ago to at least record the name and personal information of someone acting suspiciously. And with the fusion centers, this information can be collected and compared. A threat assessment can then be made and disseminated among the appropriate law enforcement agencies. Cases that merit follow-up (ideally) are handed off to the FBI-led JTTF.

Things do not always happen the way they are supposed to, however. The counterterrorism effort in the United States continues to face three significant challenges. First, there is still a great deal of information that does not get shared between fusion centers and JTTFs. Second, fusion centers have been almost too successful, creating more information than can be processed realistically. Third, the collection and storage of information about U.S. citizens raises privacy issues, and it is not clear how these concerns can best be resolved.

The difference in the kind of work done by JTTFs and fusion centers is the main reason for the lack of sharing between the two. While fusion centers share information with JTTFs through FBI and other police agency liaisons, JTTFs do not share information with fusion centers. The JTTFs are much more tactical and are usually focused on national security investigations at a highly classified level. They possess tactical details such as which suspect was conducting surveillance on a specific target on a certain day, where that person lives and who that person associates with. These details are necessary for tracking and eventually prosecuting a suspect. But since terrorism cases are classified, much of the information gathered in JTTF investigations is difficult to disseminate, as state and local police typically do not have sufficient clearance.

This means that often, state and local law enforcement officers are unaware of terrorism cases taking place in their own jurisdiction. As a result, law enforcement officers cannot share information they might have on a certain suspect, and they might not be aware of the threat an individual poses when they confront that individual for unrelated reasons. The case of the Fort Hood shooter, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, is an example of this: An FBI JTTF team had investigated Hasan based on comments he had made but concluded that he did not pose any kind of threat, so details of the investigation were not disseminated. It is not clear that dissemination of those details would have prevented the attack, but combined with the knowledge of local base or military police it could have led to a more complete profile of Hasan.

There is good reason to compartmentalize details related to a terrorism investigation, and it is the same reason why there are varying levels of confidentiality: Should details of a terrorism case leak out, it could tip off the suspect or render a prosecution more difficult to achieve. On the other hand, the safety of police officers on the street is also very important. The points of intractability are obvious.

The second challenge U.S. counterterrorism efforts face is information overload. Fusion centers collect any and all information from every available source 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All of this information must be sifted through, processed and distributed to the “right” people in the various federal, state and local agencies. It is impossible for any one person to know even a fraction of all that passes through even one of the 70 fusion centers throughout the country. So even though copious sharing occurs within and among the fusion centers, there is so much information being shared that it is nearly rendered useless. Conversely, fusion centers rely on voluntary information sharing, so the representative of a given agency does not always know or have access to all the information possessed by his or her agency. The system is not foolproof.

The third issue is the storage of U.S. citizens’ personal information. Privacy groups have protested this practice, and regulations about what information can be stored and with whom it can be shared have further limited law enforcement agencies’ ability to track suspicious people. While fusion centers are largely federally funded, the centers’ day-to-day operations are controlled by the states and are under state laws. Because of variances in states’ laws on privacy, this has led to varying levels of sharing and creates challenges in sharing information across state lines. This can lead to broad gaps in state and local law enforcement agencies’ knowledge of a certain suspect, especially in cases involving interstate conspiracies (such as the Zazi case). Meanwhile, it strengthens the need for federal agencies, such as the FBI’s JTTFs, who can track a suspect across borders and access all fusion centers. But this leads back to the problem of federal agents, who have information about a suspect’s activities and whereabouts, having little chance of encountering that suspect while local officers are more likely to encounter the suspect and could even possess vital information but are unaware of its importance.

The problem boils down to how terrorism is classified. Currently, it is considered a matter of national security and details surrounding terrorism cases are classified. This means that the information is restricted from flowing across agencies. This system has its benefits and detriments. Changing the system likely would remove some existing challenges, but it would also likely present many new ones.

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Fred Burton is one of the world’s foremost authorities on security, terrorists and terrorist organizations. In his capacity as Vice President for Counterterrorism and Corporate Security, Mr. Burton oversees Stratfor’s terrorism intelligence service and consults with clients on security-related issues affecting their organizations or personal safety. He leads a team of terrorism experts and a global network of human intelligence sources to analyze and forecast the most significant events and trends related to terrorism and counterterrorism.