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


By David E. Kaplan

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 and policies.

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 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."