Are We Safer? Reported by Dana Priest

NARRATOR: It was just after midnight September 9th, 2001.

HARVEY EISENBERG, Asst. U.S. Atty., Maryland: A trooper was doing what a trooper would do. Saw a speeder, pulled over a speeder.

NARRATOR: The Maryland state trooper ran the driver's name through the local police database.

HARVEY EISENBERG: And he gave him a ticket. The driver, from all accounts, was polite, had proper registration, license. There was nothing that the trooper could have done, other than to write the ticket, tell him to have a nice day, or have a nice night. That was it.

NARRATOR: The driver headed to Newark. He was meeting friends at the airport. His name was Ziad Jarrah.

ZIAD JARRAH: [cockpit recording] Here's the captain. I would like to tell you all to remain seated. We have a bomb aboard and we are going back to the airport. And we have our demands. So please remain quiet.

NEWSCASTER: United Flight 93 crashed near Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

NARRATOR: His burned passport was found in the wreckage. Ziad Jarrah, his fellow hijackers, 40 passengers and crew were dead. The near miss of Jarrah by that state trooper and near misses of other hijackers caused the government to assemble a massive nationwide surveillance apparatus.

RICHARD CLARKE, Counter-terror Czar, 1998-01: President Bush said to us in the basement of the White House on the night of 9/11, ``You have everything you need.'' And that was true because as soon as we went to the Congress, they said, ``Just tell us what you need.'' Blank check.

Rep. BRAD MILLER, (D) North Carolina: What Congress did, and the American people supported, was turning on the spigot of funding for all the agencies that were involved in counter-terrorism.

MICHAEL HAYDEN, Fmr. Director, NSA & CIA: Right after 9/11 - I mean, every agency can give you their own gradation, but a nice popular rule of thumb is everybody doubled down.

NARRATOR: Nine days after the attacks, Congress committed tens of billions of extra dollars to launch a global offensive against al Qaeda.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Yet in this first war of the 21st century -

NARRATOR: Since then, Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest has been tracking the growth of that terrorism-industrial complex -

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: - authorities from sharing vital information -

NARRATOR: - not just internationally, but also here at home -

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: - Oregon, Virginia, California, Texas and Ohio -

NARRATOR: - where the vast effort to fortify domestic defenses began with creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

RICHARD CLARKE: Homeland Security is by far the largest merger in government's history. There were 17 agencies from multiple departments - the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, FEMA - all being fused together into one organization, and all at once.

NARRATOR: They broke ground on what will become the home of a mammoth bureaucracy. Its $3.4 billion headquarters will rival the Pentagon as the largest government complex ever built in Washington.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies: You had something that you should never offer a bureaucracy, which is a candy store without a price tag.

NARRATOR: When DHS was first created, official Washington believed 9/11 was a failure of federal intelligence agencies to communicate.

Rep. BRAD MILLER: There were something like 30 different agencies that had databases that had information that was not being shared and correlated. It was not connecting the dots.

NARRATOR: The buzzwords became ``connecting the dots'' between federal government agencies and the states. That's why DHS decided to fund ``fusion centers'' in the states, a place where intelligence from thousands of local police forces and federal government databases could be brought together and analyzed.

[ Find your local Fusion Center]

HARVEY EISENBERG: You need to get information. You need to get it fast, and you need to have it analyzed properly and disseminated properly.

NARRATOR: DHS has funded 72 fusion centers across the nation. Maryland, the state where Ziad Jarrah slipped through the net, built one of the first.

Gov. MARTIN O'MALLEY (D), Maryland: These fusion centers are very, very important entities for that information sharing between federal government, state government, local government.

Col. TERRY SHERIDAN: The more we collaborate and cooperate, I think the better chance we have of preventing another September 11, 2001, from occurring.

RICHARD CLARKE: So the Homeland Security Department funded intelligence fusion centers in every state.

Gov. MARTIN O'MALLEY: We have roughly 80 personnel representing 30 different law enforcement agencies and public health agencies, including the FBI.

RICHARD CLARKE: Contractors went in, put in the large flat-screen TVs, put in the mission control to the moon kind of facilities.

NARRATOR: So far, DHS has spent more than $420 million on the nation's fusion centers. The idea is built around cops on the beat. They are supposed to feed the system intelligence about possible terrorists.

HARVEY EISENBERG: You want to get as much information from that trooper into the system, into the state system, and into the federal system, so that those euphemistic dots can be connected.

NARRATOR: But almost right away, the imperative to gather as much information as possible got the state police in Maryland in trouble. Looking for suspicious characters, undercover officers infiltrated anti-war and anti-death penalty groups that sometimes met here.

MAX OBUSZEWSKI, Peace Activist: We're trying to bring together the anti-war movement and the climate chaos people because the Pentagon is number one at destroying this Mother Earth.

NARRATOR: Max Obuszewski was one of the targets of the operation.

STEPHEN SACHS, Atty. Gen. of Maryland, 1979-87: Max was well known to law enforcement. Max enjoyed being well known to law enforcement, in my opinion, because he was confrontational.

NARRATOR: Before long, the police had gathered data on 53 protesters. It made its way to a database in Washington.

MAX OBUSZEWSKI: We were described as possible terrorists that they were very, very concerned about, which is absurd on many levels, to say the least.

ARDETH PLATTE, Dominican Sisters, Peace Activist: The term ``terrorist'' is just one of the most detrimental words that could ever be applied to anyone. You know that.

CAROL GILBERT, Dominican Sisters, Peace Activist: And you don't know where your name might appear.

NARRATOR: Some of the so-called terrorists were actually Catholic nuns.

CAROL GILBERT: And I think there's a big difference, at least in my mind, between being considered a person who is non-violent and a terrorist.

NARRATOR: Their files were now accessible to state and federal officials, and that's when the American Civil Liberties Union entered the fray.

MICHAEL GERMAN, Policy Counsel, ACLU: There is insufficient oversight of the fusion centers to ensure that they are only collecting the appropriate information.

NARRATOR: Mike German's cautions come from his own experience as an undercover agent for the FBI.

MICHAEL GERMAN: They were contacting other local police agencies and even the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the National Security Agency, unnamed military intelligence people. So the information was being disseminated very broadly.

NEWSCASTER: Police spied on local peace organizations -

NEWSCASTER: Fifty-three people were wrongly labeled as terrorists.

NEWSCASTER: - Maryland State Police spying program -

NARRATOR: It was an embarrassment to the state of Maryland.

Gov. MARTIN O'MALLEY: I think this is an example of the sort of cowboy excesses that you can get into if you do not have a properly functioning and professionally run fusion operation within your state.

NARRATOR: The files of tens of thousands of Americans have been put in national databases.

MICHAEL GERMAN: This is one case with the Maryland State Police, but this is the type of activity we have seen all across the country and at all levels of government - state, local police, as well as FBI, Department of Homeland Security, even the Department of Defense.

NARRATOR: But the fusion centers in Maryland and Washington still need information, lots of it. And DHS continues to depend on cops on the beat.

HARVEY EISENBERG: Cops are information gatherers. That's our front line of defense for crime. Terrorism's a crime. They need to do that, and they are doing that.

NARRATOR: This is one of the war on terror's primary weapons, known as a SAR, Suspicious Activity Report.

Col. TERRENCE SHERIDAN, Supt., Maryland State Police: If one of the 800,000 police officers in this country comes across something suspicious related to homeland security, to terrorism, they'll fill this information out.

NARRATOR: Local police are being told to look out for suspicious behavior around public facilities - picture taking, map drawing, evasive driving.

Col. TERRY SHERIDAN: I think any time we have activity and photographs of those sorts of facilities and it comes to our attention, we need to ask the questions why, or look at who's taking the pictures, to find out something about them.

NARRATOR: But even that simple instruction can get local police in trouble.

MICHAEL GERMAN: A gentleman who was photographing an Amtrak train was arrested by Amtrak police and handcuffed and detained because they thought this behavior was suspicious.

NARRATOR: It was an Amtrak-sponsored photography contest.

MICHAEL GERMAN: So this information, again, completely innocuous, deserved no police attention, is now being put on a report, deemed suspicious activity, and forwarded on to the intelligence community.

[ What's "suspicious behavior" to you?]

NARRATOR: Inevitably, there have been cases of abuse, but experienced anti-terror practitioners say it's too late to stop the information-gathering juggernaut.

PHILIP MUDD, CIA/NSC/FBI, 1985-10: Limiting information access is a task that's not going to happen. In the age of information explosion, forget about it. People say, ``You're keeping records on X, Y and Z,'' I'll say, ``Hey, get on Google, get on Google Maps, get on Google Earth. Get into commercial software that looks at how to investigate somebody's telephone number. You've got to be kidding me.''

Gov. MARTIN O'MALLEY: That's the great American conundrum, isn't it. I mean, our very - our freedom as individuals, our freedom of movement are the very things that are most vulnerable to terror attacks, and also, sadly, are most vulnerable to our own systems of government turning on those things and doing more harm than the terrorists do in their attacks.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, the federal government continues to spend billions of dollars for states to gather more information. In Maryland, they've even started taking pictures of license plates.

DANA PRIEST, Washington Post: What are we doing here?

STATE TROOPER: The system we're using has two cameras. They're - it's constantly taking pictures, observing the tags, allowing the system to record them and check them against the database.

COMPUTER VOICE: Suspended or revoked registration.

NARRATOR: This technology, used by U.S. military forces on the streets of Baghdad, has migrated to the streets of Baltimore.

HARVEY EISENBERG, Asst. U.S. Atty., Maryland: With the license plate reader system, if we were to get that information, we can then go into the system and see where else this car has been.

STATE TROOPER: The software with the system, when it sees what it thinks is a license plate, it will read it using OCR, optical character recognition, and make a crosscheck against a database.

NARRATOR: Surveillance cameras at vital institutions are also photographing license plates and adding them to the database.

HARVEY EISENBERG: Maybe nobody called it in when they were at Ft. Detrick or Aberdeen Proving Ground or at Bolling Air Force Base. But the license plate readers will tell us they were there and when they were there and when they passed through. That's a pattern. That's something we'd want to know about.

NARRATOR: And they've gone one step further. Smile - cameras are everywhere.

Gov. MARTIN O'MALLEY: We are very big on CCTV. We believe that it is a force multiplier, that it is an effective way not only to provide greater security in open spaces - evidence Times Square - but also, it's a much more effective way to guard approaches to tunnels, bridges and other sorts of static targets.

NARRATOR: Maryland, like most states, has gotten very good at following the money from DHS, money to equip local police with the latest technology, much of it imported from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, at a sales fair in Phoenix, American companies have rushed into the information-gathering bonanza.

VENDOR: It's called micro-facial expressions. We use it to help the soldiers, the troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, to tell if the individual's trying to hide something.

NARRATOR: The new gold rush has attracted some familiar names - General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman - and some newcomers.

VENDOR: We can take massive stores of pre-recorded video, whether it be facial video, aerial, in this context anything related to vehicles, and extract those objects and understand the nature and behavior of those objects and update a side-by-side cue system with the high-level results.

NARRATOR: This is all part of that massive new organization, ``Top Secret America,'' that the government has been constructing since 9/11.

WILLIAM ARKIN, Co-Author, ``Top Secret America'': Doesn't that make sense?

DANA PRIEST, Washington Post: Yeah.

NARRATOR: Two years ago, with her fellow reporter Bill Arkin, Priest began to focus on ``Top Secret America'' as it grew and spread.

DANA PRIEST: What's this one?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Here's all of General Dynamics in the country.

DANA PRIEST: Oh, my goodness!

NARRATOR: And hundreds of those buildings were hiding in plain sight in office parks like this.

DANA PRIEST: And this is a gate to the NSA?

DENNIS LANE, Maryland Realtor: There's a government facility back in there. You'll see it better after we turn down this road. Obviously, I can't go that way.

NARRATOR: Inside these buildings, nearly one million Americans are fighting what has been called the global war on terror.

DENNIS LANE: OK, you've got Titan in here. CFC is in one of these buildings, General Dynamics, security station here at the front where they check out the cars and look underneath.

DANA PRIEST: So maybe you should put the camera down now.

DENNIS LANE: You just never know who's watching over here.

NARRATOR: Slowly, they discovered a hidden world of military, government and private corporations.

DANA PRIEST: All right, so can we just go over what you have?

MICHAEL WILLIAMSON, Photographer, The Washington Post: Sure. This is the pictures that I went up to that credit union place -

NARRATOR: They documented the incredible building boom all around Washington.

MICHAEL WILLIAMSON: Had it not been for the leaves off the trees and at night, you just - you would never see this thing.

DANA PRIEST: And yet it's gigantic.

MICHAEL WILLIAMSON: For the rest of my life, I will never see the world the same way again, especially around Washington. These buildings that - they might only be four stories high, but they go down ten stories. And there's a whole world down there, like shops and places to eat, that you don't know about, that's just for them.

NARRATOR: This is a world so secretive, so large and unwieldy that no one knows how much it costs or everything it does.

MICHAEL HAYDEN, Fmr. Director, NSA & CIA: I could not possibly claim that I knew everything that was going on. I think someone said that only God knows all the special access programs. I think that's true. Is that a good thing? Probably not. Can we avoid it? Probably not.

NARRATOR: Four-star General Michael Hayden ran the National Security Agency and then the CIA. But even he didn't know the scope of and size of secret programs inside ``Top Secret America.''

MICHAEL HAYDEN: I was in government service for 40 years. Most of that was in intelligence. I would never claim to you that I knew all the compartments.

NARRATOR: And no one seems to know what it all really costs.

THOMAS KEAN: You have a Congress that's not doing its job on oversight, and recognizes it's not doing it, calls it dysfunctional. So who's making the decisions? And where are they being made? Well, they're being made in the 17 different intelligence agencies. And nobody's in overall charge. So naturally, you're going to get bloated budgets. Naturally, you're going to get duplication.

NARRATOR: It's a story only just beginning to be understood, a story about the price of security and whether all those tens of billions of dollars are actually making us safer.

RICHARD CLARKE: You can look, if you're objective, at all of this money and all of this effort and say, ``What would have happened if we hadn't done that?'' And in almost every case, nothing would have happened. It's true that there hasn't been another attack. It's not true that all of this expenditure and all these people have stopped it.

NEWSCASTER: The terror threat in this country is coming from within.

NEWSCASTER: - tried to set off a bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

NEWSCASTER: - arrested by federal agents this morning after attempting to detonate -

NARRATOR: But what about all those publicized cases that sounded like successes?

NEWSCASTER: The guy who tried to blow up more than 250 fellow passengers -

NEWSCASTER: What exactly went wrong?

NARRATOR: Just a year ago, at Christmas, the underwear bomber, who somehow evaded the security net despite numerous intelligence red flags and a father who warned the CIA his son might be a threat.

NEWSCASTER: There are more questions than answers to -

NEWSCASTER: There were no red flags raised -

Gen. JACK KEANE (Ret.), Army Vice Chief of Staff, 1999-03: He actually got to the point of triggering the device, which means at that point, the only thing that's going to stop that is what happened, is a technical failure, or maybe a human failure.

Rep. BRAD MILLER: What we found out from the Christmas Day bombing attempt was that because the Nigerian guy's name was misspelled by one letter, he did not pop up - the little bits of data about him did not - were not correlated. Those dots were not connected.

RICHARD CLARKE: Google does it. If you mistype something on Google, it says, ``Did you mean this?'' Despite spending all the billions of dollars on databases, that simple spell check ``Did you mean this?'' kind of software wasn't operating.

NARRATOR: And then, five months later, there was the Times Square bomber.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: You can be assured that the FBI and their partners in this process have all the tools and experience they need -

MARK LOWENTHAL, Asst. Dir., CIA, 2002-05: The Times Square bomber was a horrendously run operation. A bunch of vendors in Times Square said to the cops, ``There's a problem with this car.''

THOMAS KEAN: Both those cases, it was not the intelligence agencies, it was private citizens. On the plane, it was a private citizen who jumped the guy. Times Square, it was a vendor saying, ``Something's wrong there,'' letting the law enforcement authorities know it. So we were lucky and because we have an alert citizenry.

NEWSCASTER: The FBI says it's taken down a home-grown radical -

NEWSCASTER: Here in Baltimore, a man apparently tried to blow up a military recruitment center in -

NARRATOR: And then there's this case that happened just recently in Maryland.

NEWSCASTER: - to detonate what he thought was a bomb -

RICHARD McFEELY, Special Agent in Charge, FBI Baltimore: He proceeded to drive the SUV, as planned, to the recruiting center, where he parked it in front of the building.

NARRATOR: An undercover FBI agent had given the suspect an inert bomb.

Col. TERRY SHERIDAN: He had a detonation device which he was to key. However, when he keyed it, it didn't work.

RICHARD McFEELY: He was immediately placed under arrest at that time.

NARRATOR: And once again, the suspect, 21-year-old Antonio Martinez, had been discovered by an alert citizen reading FaceBook. The source called the FBI in Baltimore.

DANA PRIEST: I'm trying to think of any other technology that would have helped in this case.

RICHARD McFEELY: This was good, old-fashioned police work by a lot of different police agencies coming together.

DANA PRIEST: OK. So not so heavy on the technology.

RICHARD McFEELY: That's correct.

NARRATOR: The fusion center's new technology was not involved, nor were the CCTV or license plate cameras. There was no SAR report.

[Dana Priest will continue to report on ``Top Secret America.'' Her full story will air this fall on FRONTLINE.]


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Posted January 18, 2011

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