Spies Among Us
Despite a troubled history, police across the nation are keeping tabs on ordinary Americans
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 activity.
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."