D.C.'s guidance to cities faulted

Democratic lawmaker says local officials need support in deciding action

October 19, 2005|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Yesterday, it was the tunnels beneath Baltimore harbor. Two weeks ago, it was the New York subway.

In both cases, the questions for local officials were the same: Can and should they act on information of a potential terrorist plot in their city?

And in both cases, the federal government did a lousy job of helping them find answers, said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel.

In alleged terror plots, information often comes from overseas, as in the Baltimore threat, and must be vetted through multiple intelligence agencies.

In the time between when the information is first discovered and when it is validated, state and local officials struggle with the decision about what to do.

Harman said the director of national intelligence should have a common interpretation of what a threat means and provide that to local governments.

Instead, she said, what happened in Baltimore yesterday and in New York earlier was that local officials were given information that they acted on while officials in Washington continued to question whether the information was reliable and valid.

A law enforcement official confirmed last night that an informant in the Baltimore investigation had a "questionable" performance in a polygraph test.

The threat information that locked down the New York subway system two weeks ago came from a Defense Intelligence Agency source in Iraq and was then evaluated by the FBI and CIA, which later decided the threat was not credible.

"In both of these cases we have a situation where it looks like the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing." Harman said. "There was a federal meltdown."

Officials face difficult decisions in evaluating potential threats, as they try to balance the need to protect the public with the danger of unduly frightening people.

The chief problem the federal government faces is deciding whether to take a threat seriously, and that takes time.

"One of the issues that people don't understand is we get a lot of this kind of [threat] information," said one federal law enforcement official who requested anonymity because the investigation is continuing. "There's a lot of footwork that goes behind these things and trying to validate or invalidate the information."

For example, yesterday's raids in Southeast Baltimore were part of a verification process that began last week when investigators first got the threat information. Information from the men detained in the raid is expected to allow the federal government to determine the threat's credibility within the next 24 to 48 hours, the official said.

There is a "tipping point" at which officials decide to take action - publicly or not. But it varies with each threat.

"It is as much an art as a science," said Frank Cilluffo, who was a top White House homeland security aide. "You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis."

Cilluffo said that local officials will have a lower threshold to trigger action because they are closer to the potential threat and do not see it as part of the series of threats the federal government learns of regularly.

The federal government's current approach to such threats is to give information to local government officials with caveats about its reliability as it tries to corroborate the threat information, Cilluffo said.

Only when the federal government can verify the threat would the Department of Homeland Security or other federal agencies step in, he said.

Leaving the initial actions to local officials, however, means there is no way to ensure consistency in the response to the threat, and that can lead to confusion, he said. "We'll be having these sorts of stories for a while," he said. "We have a lot to learn. People interpret things differently."

Harman said, however, that at the federal level the lack of coordination among the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and director of national intelligence points to the same problems the country faced prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

She said she is dismayed that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte "didn't play a role in either case." Negroponte "should have been all over this," she said.

Negroponte's press secretary Carl Kropf said, "I'm going to decline to speak on the congresswoman's statement."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat who also serves on the intelligence committee, voiced similar concerns but was hesitant to judge the performance in Baltimore so early.

"It's important that we analyze not only this scenario but what happened in New York," he said. The lesson there, in which the FBI worked with the city's police and excluded the Department of Homeland Security, is that "there shouldn't be any hint of protecting one's turf," he said.

Jim Pettit, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Office of Homeland Security, said the federal homeland security agency and the FBI worked closely with the state in evaluating the threat, but the state was left to decide what to do.

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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