Intelligence-sharing plan unveiled

Local, state, federal officials to seek means of better communication


WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft unveiled an intelligence-sharing plan yesterday aimed at "connecting the dots" among local, state and federal law enforcement tracking terrorists.

Ashcroft said the new plan would address the "single greatest structural cause" for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington: the failure of law enforcement to share intelligence information.

"Government erected a wall that segregated criminal investigators from intelligence agents, government buttressed that wall, and before Sept. 11, 2001, government was blinded by that wall," said Ashcroft, speaking at a news conference with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and other federal, state and local law enforcement officials.

Under the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, a council of local, state and federal law enforcement officials will explore ways to improve communication among the nation's 18,000 police agencies. The council will develop and implement intelligence sharing policies.

For example, there are currently hundreds of different computer networks used by law enforcement to store data on suspects. Under the plan, a new software program would be created to connect the databases so that an officer in New York could tap into the system used in Texas.

The plan also calls for making the prevention of terrorist attacks a top priority among state and local law enforcement with training on terrorist methods. And it calls for the Justice Department to "routinely share information to all levels of the law enforcement community."

The plan represents law enforcement's commitment to "do everything possible to connect the dots, whether it be a set of criminal dots or a set of terrorist dots," Ashcroft said.

Mueller said sharing intelligence among local, state and federal law enforcement is imperative in derailing future terrorist strikes.

"We together have to focus on intelligence-led policing, because it will be the intelligence that will help the officer on the street or the chief of police or even the president of the United States to make those critical decisions that are necessary to try to prevent another attack," Mueller said.

The plan was developed after a lack of communication between federal and local law enforcement was noted as a major problem by officers attending the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in 2002.

A summit was held a few months after the conference that resulted in an advisory group working with the Justice Department coming up with a plan.

"Law enforcement has done a great job at collecting info, but a terrible job sharing it," said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The reasons for the lack of sharing are threefold: rules that kept criminal investigators apart from intelligence agents, officers who feared sabotaging their cases by sharing, and lack of a system to share information.

The goal is to tap into the estimated 800,000 police officers across the country because they interact in their communities on a daily basis and will likely be the first to come across a terrorist plot, Voegtlin said.

Information sharing has greatly improved since the al-Qaida attacks, Voegtlin said. The FBI set up a terrorist screening center in December that allows local and state police officers to check suspects against a consolidated watch list of suspected terrorists.

In the five months of operation, the center has had 3,300 calls and identified more than 300 suspected terrorists stopped during a traffic or criminal investigation, Voegtlin said.

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