Monday, March 14, 2005

States Say They Know Little About Threats

By LARA JAKES JORDAN
Associated Press Writer

CALVERTON, Md. -- The first call came in midafternoon: State homeland security advisers needed to join a classified briefing about a potential new terror threat. Most states were connected to the U.S. Homeland Security Department by 4:45 p.m.

At 6:30, they were still waiting.

Eventually, state directors were told to leave the Feb. 25 video conference call while Homeland Security and other federal agencies debated how much to reveal about recent al-Qaida intelligence.

State officials say the incident was part of an uphill struggle to share clear and concise terror information with agencies trying to protect Americans in every state.

Homeland Security "is supposed to be the pathway to state and local governments," said Virginia homeland security director George W. Foresman, who was on the call and served as vice chair of a commission that evaluated the nation's readiness for terrorism from 1998 to 2003. "I think they're trying to do the right thing. But here they are, still clamoring for acknowledgment from other federal agencies that they're responsible for doing it."

The department, which merged 22 federal agencies when it opened its doors two years ago, calls itself the "one-stop shop" for state and local officials on homeland security issues. But recent studies indicate a majority of states are only somewhat satisfied with information they receive, and complain of getting mixed signals and conflicting guidance from Homeland Security and other federal agencies.

All 50 states have designated homeland security directors to help coordinate and analyze a daily barrage of intelligence and crime data. Their job titles and daily responsibilities, however, vary from state to state.

In Massachusetts, state officials routinely cross-check the validity of intelligence received from one federal agency -- generally Homeland Security or the FBI -- against another. In Washington state, officials collect intelligence from Homeland Security, the FBI and the military so "you're not dependent on a single source," said Adjutant General Timothy Lowenberg.

And in Maryland, the state's anti-terrorism advisory council of 180 agencies is coordinated by the Justice Department. Maryland's terror intelligence center in suburban Calverton, which opened in 2003, is run by state and local police agencies and the FBI.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey E. Eisenberg, the Maryland advisory council's coordinator, said he works closely with Homeland Security and public health officials to distribute terror information beyond traditional law enforcement channels.

"Part of it is a culture change," Eisenberg said from his office in Baltimore. "How do we all talk to each other without violating trusts? How do we get information out effectively and fast without compromising security? And how do you trust people to make those calls?

"I know that has to change."

Homeland Security officials and state directors generally agree the department has made significant strides in sharing information since 2003.

States and major urban areas obtain real-time threat intelligence through the department's information network, and Homeland Security has equipped states with videoconference technology for biweekly meetings. The department also participates with the FBI on joint terrorism task force investigations.

But the department acknowledges states need more in-depth and detailed threat information.

"It shouldn't only be about, `Here's a little tidbit of information, let's get it out to everybody,'" said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "It should be trying to provide a context within which state and local governments can have a better understanding for their own purposes of the nature of the threat that we face."

Hours after the thwarted Feb. 25 call, Homeland Security issued a classified but vague intelligence bulletin to state directors indicating potential al-Qaida attacks on the United States. Counterterrorism officials later said the intelligence indicated Osama bin Laden was trying to enlist his top operative in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for the attacks.

Homeland Security said the state directors were the first people below the federal level to get the information on official channels. Several state directors, however, said they were told the department released the intelligence after it had already started to seep to local law enforcement agencies or the National Guard.

Jonathan A. Duecker, Pennsylvania's homeland security director, said the teleconference calls and bulletins are mostly "good-faith efforts" to keep states informed. Direct one-on-one calls from Homeland Security, however, put him on alert and "perk me up."

Recent studies by a Homeland Security Advisory Council task force and the National Governors Association indicate states are increasingly frustrated with a daily flood of information from a variety of federal sources. States want one point of contact in Washington for intelligence collection and analysis, followed by "dissemination through a single pipeline," said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

However, Homeland Security "has not had, in the past, the access to the immediate information and intelligence from all the other agencies," said Romney, who chaired the task force. "And so we have tended to go agency to agency, gathering information through an ad hoc process rather than through a single federal doorway."

But relying on a single agency can be risky. In January, an ultimately bogus FBI tip indicated Chinese nationals described as possible terror suspects were headed to Boston. Homeland Security was not involved in the case, which led to a brief but potent public scare in Massachusetts. Romney said state and federal officials share some blame in the false alarm because "more information than necessary was disseminated."

In Washington state, Lowenberg said simple coordination with its state, local, tribal and private partners might help Homeland Security close the gaps.

"It would enhance national security to do that," he said. "In the earliest days, there was an earnest effort to bring the state homeland security advisers in to collaborate. And now it tends to be much more of a one-directional flow of information -- from the Department of Homeland Security to the states."
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