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policing the front lines:

Cathy Bussewitz is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a freelance reporter based in Berkeley.

The city of Stockton, Calif., the state's largest inland port, sits in the fertile San Joaquin Delta at the crossroads of four major highways and two trans-continental railroads. It lies along the I-5 interstate that runs from San Diego on the Mexican border to Vancouver, Canada. And Stockton is only 10 minutes from the town of Lodi, where the U.S. government spent years investigating a suspected network of Al Qaeda operatives.

Officer Scott Graviette is one of the 370 police officers who patrol the city, which is reported to have the highest per capita crime rate in the state. Graviette, 31, steers his unmarked white Mustang by the strip malls, Howard Johnson's and mechanic shops that line the streets he once patrolled for prostitution rings. That was before he became the city's sole counterterrorism officer. Four months into his new beat, Graviette is very aware of the importance of his role. "You don't want something to happen again like it did," he told FRONTLINE.

Sergeant Blake Tatem, head of the Stockton Vice Unit, estimated that since 9/11 patrol officers have seen about 25 "hits" against the government's terrorist watch list during routine traffic stops, meaning that the name of the person pulled over matched a name on the terrorist watch list accessed from a squad car. Most hits occurred because the suspect's name was similar to someone else on the watch list, Tatem said, and most suspects were released.

New Tools, and Confusion, for Police

A Stockton, Calif. police officer uses the mobile data terminal in his squad car.

Police are often called the "front line" in the fight against terrorism. There are 800,000 police officers in the United States compared to 12,000 FBI agents, making it far more likely that a police officer would be the first to encounter a terrorist.

Three of the 9/11 hijackers had encounters with police before they carried out the attacks; two of them, in fact, were already suspected by the CIA to be involved with terrorism. But the CIA never shared that information with other federal agencies, and there was no central terrorist watch list within the federal government being shared with local police.

Today, there is such a list, administered by the new Terrorist Screening Center (TSC). While most police departments have access to this watch list, many are not aware of it. FRONTLINE called 10 police departments; none initially believed that the terrorist watch list was now available from the computers in their squad cars; most believed the technology was a work in progress. Even New York Police Chief Ray Kelly said in an interview with FRONTLINE that if an officer ran a name in a routine traffic stop, it wouldn't be checked against a terrorist database.

Outgoing TSC head Donna Bucella acknowledged the problem. "You got 800,000 [police] out there on the streets and the message didn't get to all of them," she said. Bucella and her staff spend a lot of time doing outreach. She personally writes letters to individual police departments telling them about the database.

More Work Left to Do

In February 2003, in a speech at FBI headquarters, President Bush assured the public that officers all across the country, even in his hometown of Crawford, Texas, would be able to identify known or suspected terrorists "in near-real time" so that "the front line of defeating terror becomes activated and real."

But three years later, FRONTLINE called Crawford's police department and learned it does not have the technology in their squad cars. Instead, officers have to call the sheriff's department from the street to check a name.

Even those police chiefs who know about the watch list and have mobile data terminals in their squad cars say they need more than just a list of names to do their job -- they need access to a deeper level of information that includes criminal reports, surveillance, and detail-rich files kept by federal intelligence agencies.

In May 2006, some of the nation's top police chiefs complained in a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that they don't have access to detailed information critical to their investigations. Such information is often classified and not available to local law enforcement agencies.

"Police officers need to be able to access this information from the squad car so they know what they're dealing with," Washington, D.C. Chief of Police Charles Ramsey told FRONTLINE. "We need to find a way to get information to officers on the street."

Inside the Terrorist Screening Database

Before information can get to the local police, however, it needs to be shared and sorted among the federal agencies involved in counterterrorism. Donna Bucella of the Terrorist Screening Center has spent the last two years unlocking the detail-rich databases housed in federal intelligence agencies and delivering that information to the officers on the street.

Bucella was tasked with creating the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the master terrorist watch list for the entire federal government. The enormous feat involved filtering and standardizing information from 16 federal intelligence agencies, all in a matter of three months.

"Every agency seemed to have their own top-20, top-30, top-40, and there was no one place for the U.S. government watch list of both international and domestic terrorists to reside," Bucella, who recently announced she is leaving government for the private sector, explained.

The TSDB database contains the names of potential terrorists under surveillance by all federal agencies and includes identifying information like birthdays and physical characteristics. From that database, the Terrorist Screening Center outputs "watch lists" to several agencies, from the Transportation Security Administration to the FBI and local police.

The watch list names from the TSDB are then added to the current National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, which police have long been able to access from the mobile data terminals in their squad cars. NCIC, an FBI-administered database, has been used by police officers in routine traffic stops to check for outstanding warrants for decades. Now, all names checked through NCIC are also checked against the terrorist watch list.

Running Down a "Hit"

When a suspect's name is typed into the computer, it is checked against those databases, and if the individual is on the terrorist watch list, the officer will get a message saying, "Warning, approach with caution. Do not alert the individual to this notice. Please contact the Terrorist Screening Center." The officer will then call the TSC, where an operator asks the officer for identifying information to determine whether the suspect is really the person listed in the database.

If there is a match, the officer stays on the line and the "nominating" agency that put the individual on the list -- CIA, FBI, DHS, etc. -- is notified. The suspect may be arrested or held for questioning, but usually, Bucella said, officers are instructed to gather more information, which is passed back up the chain.

"Say, for instance, this guy had five cell phones, all going off at the same time," Bucella said, "or if he has bank records sitting on the front seat of the car. All that information goes back to the case agent." In addition, officers might take photos of suspects, sometimes with cell-phone cameras, which can replace outdated photos in federal databases and which can be shared more freely.

The Limitations of Sharing

TSDB provides a critical link between local and federal law enforcement, but it has limitations. For example, the current system doesn't account for aliases. "We had people with 46 aliases," says Bucella. "Information was coming in bits and dribbles, depending on what agency was investigating it. They didn't have one group looking at it, saying, 'We have all these different photos of John Doe, and we're all going to stick it in the John Doe file.' Unfortunately, still to this day, it's not like that."

Another limitation is that the TSDB only contains identifying information. The local and federal law enforcement each have their own criminal reports and classified files, and that information stays under wraps on both sides.

"The concern that everybody had was they didn't want John Doe on the street having source-protected information that could compromise a source that could possibly get killed, or compromise an entire investigation," Bucella said.

The "Mother of all Terrorism Databases"

In order to bridge the gap, police departments in 100 U.S. cities participate in Joint Terrorism Task Forces; police officers work with agents from the FBI and other agencies to share classified information and collaborate on investigations. And Los Angeles recently opened the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, the first "fusion center" to house federal and state law enforcement databases and agents under one roof.

The next step, say police chiefs like Ramsey, would be to "fuse the fusion centers," sharing information not just with major municipalities like New York and Los Angeles but also with smaller police departments who don't participate in Joint Terrorism Task Forces.

But some say that level of cooperation is a long way off. At the federal level, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) holds classified reports from the 16 federal intelligence agencies, in what Bucella refers to as the "mother of all terrorism databases." But even NCTC analysts have to toggle between dozens of computers to access information, because the databases of different agencies haven't been merged. Reports created by NCTC staff are distributed to federal analysts, but not to local police.

"The U.S. government has made a lot of progress on horizontal information sharing at the federal level, meaning that the different departments and agencies of the federal government are now accessing and sharing information better among them," John Brennan, former director of the NCTC, explained in an interview with FRONTLINE. "But vertical information sharing or access, federal information that is made available to state and local law enforcement and the reverse -- that system is not yet in place."

This article was a project of the Investigative Journalism for Print and Television Seminar at the University of California at Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, taught by Reva and David Logan Distinguished Professor Lowell Bergman and Rob Gunnison under the direction of investigative journalist Marlena Telvick. Reporting by Jeff Kearns, Charlotte Buchen, Jordan deBree, Cathy Bussewitz, Lee Wang and Center for Investigative Reporting intern Taylor Valore. Additional research by Matt Levin, Kate Golden and Joseph De Avila. Additional editing by Alison Pierce of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Special thanks to the Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Gruber Family Foundation.

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posted oct. 10, 2006

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