Md. center viewed as a pillar in the homeland security field

Site played role in arrest of man in terror database

August 13, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has called the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center "one example of Maryland's leadership in the homeland security arena." President Bush has hailed it as a model in the fight against terrorism.

This week, the center played a key role in leading a Baltimore County police officer to a New York man listed in a terrorism-related database.

"It shows me that the FBI is doing a better job of explaining how the system that works so well for us can work for everyone," said Joan O'Brien, acting special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore field office.

Since 2003, the multiagency center in Calverton with a staff of 40 has fielded more than 3,000 tips and handled more than 4,000 requests for information from law enforcement officials about suspects' potential links to terrorism and other crimes.

"I think it's exceeded our expectations," Maryland Homeland Security Director Dennis Schrader said.

The center is one solution to a dispute among local and federal authorities who differ on whether law enforcement agencies are sharing enough information. Police in cities such as Baltimore have fought for more coordination.

In internal surveys, law enforcement officials lauded the analysis center's ability to share information seen as critical to preventing terrorism. Complaints range from a failure to include the Drug Enforcement Administration and immigration officials to inadequate training.

"I think they try very hard and are effective as they can be, but they are not given all of the resources they need and often left out on important information," said Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department official critical of federal intelligence-gathering efforts. He now serves as director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

Greenberger said the new coordination center lacks necessary resources and that the database of potential terror suspects is too vast and incomplete. He said there are many people on the list who don't belong and others who should be listed but are not.

Officials said the nature of their work can make it difficult to explain their successes and shortcomings. As with intelligence agencies, the victories often cannot be publicized without revealing covert techniques or tipping off others that they are being watched.

"Step one is that we have been successful in preventing another attack," Schrader said. "Part of the continuing challenge is [that it is] difficult to prove a negative. So we have to challenge ourselves constantly about what we're doing right and what we're not."

The Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center was heralded when it opened almost two years ago as the nation's first local, state and federal law enforcement resources center able to process tips about suspicious activities and provide information to officers in the field.

The center "has a variety of different agencies contributing, so that no one agency has ownership," the FBI's O'Brien said. "Often, information is shared more readily if you don't feel like you're sitting in someone else's house."

Since its watch section opened Nov. 3, 2003, 3,604 tips have been called in -- mostly, officials said, by regular citizens.

"The vast majority of them are not terrorist-related tips," said Baltimore County Police Capt. David P. Moxley, who directs the Maryland analysis center. "But there are hundreds that are. ... A couple of years ago, those tips would have fallen between the cracks."

During the same period, 4,694 requests for information or assistance from law enforcement officials have been processed.

They include attempts to locate fugitives, efforts to find missing persons and background checks on prospective police department applicants.

The center has issued 475 bulletins covering terrorism or criminal topics. The push is to make those analyses short and easily digestible for patrol officers, said Supervisory Special Agent Don Hibbard, who oversees the FBI Baltimore office's field intelligence group.

The center is run in Maryland by the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council, one of 93 such organizations both praised and criticized by the Department of Justice's Inspector General's office in June.

Some of the criticism focused on training that seemed to be steered toward FBI agents; activities that failed to be coordinated with the most remote areas of states; too few standards for judging performance; and a failure to integrate the resources of the FBI with those who have expertise in immigration and drug-related crime.

Harvey Eisenberg, who coordinates the advisory council, said most of the red flags raised by the inspector general's report don't apply to Maryland.

Eisenberg did say that the center's strategic analysis section needs to do a better job in hiring additional qualified applicants and find a better way to evaluate reports.

"Right now, our biggest need is to reduce redundancy," he said. "I don't want some officer saying, `I've gotten the same thing from several sources.'"

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