Colorado ‘fusion’ center alert for possible terrorist attacks
Ryan Summerlin August 24, 2007
CENTENNIAL, Colo. ” In a building in a suburban Denver office park, state trooper Michael Honn keeps track of incoming crime reports from police departments and the latest information on terrorism risk levels nationwide.
He’s supervising the Colorado Information Analysis Center, or CIAC, the state’s hub for monitoring potential terrorist threats ” and collecting tips from everyone from building managers to taxi drivers.
“It’s like a humongous community watch program,” said Capt. Brenda Leffler of the State Patrol, who manages the center’s daily operations.
The CIAC (pronounced like “kayak”) is one of more than 40 “fusion centers” collecting local, state and regional information established across the country after Sept. 11, 2001. Sites include major metropolitan areas such as New York City and Seattle, as well as places like Bismarck, N.D., and Fort Harrison, Mont.
Security experts say the fusion concept makes sense given the nation’s size and the many layers of federal, state and local government agencies responsible for protecting the public.
Whether the centers are effective isn’t clear yet.
A July study by the Congressional Research Service noted that many fusion centers, launched with over $300 million in federal grants, increasingly focus on regular criminal activity as well as natural and even agricultural disasters.
In Colorado, that “all-hazards” approach means that if there’s a livestock disease outbreak, for example, the center would work with agricultural officials to determine the need for a quarantine and spread the word among emergency services and the agricultural sector, Leffler said.
The CRS study concluded that many centers aren’t living up to their name because they don’t analyze data from multiple sources or proactively collect intelligence. It recommended that Congress consider what the federal government expects from the centers and decide whether it will keep providing funding or if states and cities will have to chip in more.
Mike Wermuth, homeland security director for the RAND Corp. think tank, said agencies at all levels must cooperate on the terror front and that cannot be done by a federal mandate.
“There is no single entity that is in charge of this process,” he said.
However, with many entities fighting terrorism ” including regional FBI task forces and U.S. Attorney’s offices ” leaders need to think carefully about where homeland security money is spent and whether agencies have overlapping responsibilities, Wermuth said.
At the CIAC, about 65 percent of the information it analyzes comes from traditional law enforcement sources, Leffler said. The rest comes from tips from the public ” including businesses.
Leffler said the center has participated in disrupting terror plots since it opened in 2005, but she said she couldn’t discuss how many or their nature.
Authorities have previously stated that people involved with domestic and international terrorist groups are in Colorado, which is home to Supermax, a federal prison housing some convicted terrorists, and the Denver Federal Center, the largest collection of federal buildings outside Washington, D.C. The state also is hosting next year’s Democratic National Convention.
Leffler said there’s no way of knowing at first whether information that seems to apply to ordinary criminal activity could lead police to terrorists, whom she said tend to make their plans over two or three years.
“What’s important today may not be important today. It may be important in two years,” she said.
On a recent day, the CIAC got an e-mail from a woman who reported three men taking photographs of the lower downtown Denver building where she works.
Honn forwarded the information to another trooper to follow up with the woman and to alert Denver police and the building’s security. But without more details, such as a vehicle description, there wasn’t much to do, he said.
The woman making the report stated that the men appeared to be “Middle Eastern.” Leffler said CIAC staffers, who are trained in federal privacy laws, are more concerned with people’s actions, not their ethnicity or religion.
Focusing on mostly traditional law enforcement information isn’t necessarily a weakness, Wermuth said. Local agencies’ knowledge of their respective communities can put them in a better spot to discover “sleeper” terrorist cells that haven’t come to the attention of federal authorities.
“It’s a good bet that a local law enforcement organization is going to be the first to stumble across something like that,” Wermuth said.