Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.

The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation's history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The government's goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States.

Other democracies - Britain and Israel, to name two - are well acquainted with such domestic security measures. But for the United States, the sum of these new activities represents a new level of governmental scrutiny.

This localized intelligence apparatus is part of a larger Top Secret America created since the attacks. In July, The Washington Post described an alternative geography of the United States, one that has grown so large, unwieldy and secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs or how many programs exist within it.

Today's story, along with related material on The Post's Web site, examines how Top Secret America plays out at the local level. It describes a web of 4,058 federal, state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions. At least 935 of these organizations have been created since the 2001 attacks or became involved in counterterrorism for the first time after 9/11.

The months-long investigation, based on nearly 100 interviews and 1,000 documents, found that:

* Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America.

* The FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously. It is accessible to an increasing number of local law enforcement and military criminal investigators, increasing concerns that it could somehow end up in the public domain.

* Seeking to learn more about Islam and terrorism, some law enforcement agencies have hired as trainers self-described experts whose extremist views on Islam and terrorism are considered inaccurate and counterproductive by the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies.

* The Department of Homeland Security sends its state and local partners intelligence reports with little meaningful guidance, and state reports have sometimes inappropriately reported on lawful meetings.

Counterterrorism on Main Street

In cities across Tennessee and across the nation local agencies are using sophisticated equipment and techniques to keep an eye out for terrorist threats -- and to watch Americans in the process.

The need to identify U.S.-born or naturalized citizens who are planning violent attacks is more urgent than ever, U.S. intelligence officials say. This month's FBI sting operation involving a Baltimore construction worker who allegedly planned to bomb a Maryland military recruiting station is the latest example. It followed a similar arrest of a Somali-born naturalized U.S. citizen allegedly seeking to detonate a bomb near a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore. There have been nearly two dozen other cases just this year.

"The old view that 'if we fight the terrorists abroad, we won't have to fight them here' is just that - the old view," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told police and firefighters recently.

The Obama administration heralds this local approach as a much-needed evolution in the way the country confronts terrorism.

However, just as at the federal level, the effectiveness of these programs, as well as their cost, is difficult to determine. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, does not know how much money it spends each year on what are known as state fusion centers, which bring together and analyze information from various agencies within a state.

The total cost of the localized system is also hard to gauge. The DHS has given $31 billion in grants since 2003 to state and local governments for homeland security and to improve their ability to find and protect against terrorists, including $3.8 billion in 2010. At least four other federal departments also contribute to local efforts. But the bulk of the spending every year comes from state and local budgets that are too disparately recorded to aggregate into an overall total.

The Post findings paint a picture of a country at a crossroads, where long-standing privacy principles are under challenge by these new efforts to keep the nation safe.

The public face of this pivotal effort is Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, which years ago built one of the strongest state intelligence organizations outside of New York to try to stop illegal immigration and drug importation.

Napolitano has taken her "See Something, Say Something" campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation's capital for "Terror Tips" and to "Report Suspicious Activity."

She recently enlisted the help of Wal-Mart, Amtrak, major sports leagues, hotel chains and metro riders. In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.

"This represents a shift for our country," she told New York City police officers and firefighters on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary this fall. "In a sense, this harkens back to when we drew on the tradition of civil defense and preparedness that predated today's concerns."

From Afghanistan to Tennessee

On a recent night in Memphis, a patrol car rolled slowly through a parking lot in a run-down section of town. The military-grade infrared camera on its hood moved robotically from left to right, snapping digital images of one license plate after another and analyzing each almost instantly.

Suddenly, a red light flashed on the car's screen along with the word "warrant."

"Got a live one! Let's do it," an officer called out.

The streets of Memphis are a world away from the streets of Kabul, yet these days, the same types of technologies and techniques are being used in both places to identify and collect information about suspected criminals and terrorists.

The examples go far beyond Memphis.

* Hand-held, wireless fingerprint scanners were carried by U.S. troops during the insurgency in Iraq to register residents of entire neighborhoods. L-1 Identity Solutions is selling the same type of equipment to police departments to check motorists' identities.

* In Arizona, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Facial Recognition Unit, using a type of equipment prevalent in war zones, records 9,000 biometric digital mug shots a month.

* U.S. Customs and Border Protection flies General Atomics' Predator drones along the Mexican and Canadian borders - the same kind of aircraft, equipped with real-time, full-motion video cameras, that has been used in wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan to track the enemy.

The special operations units deployed overseas to kill the al-Qaeda leadership drove technological advances that are now expanding in use across the United States. On the front lines, those advances allowed the rapid fusing of biometric identification, captured computer records and cellphone numbers so troops could launch the next surprise raid.
Here at home, it's the DHS that is enamored with collecting photos, video images and other personal information about U.S. residents in the hopes of teasing out terrorists.

The DHS helped Memphis buy surveillance cameras that monitor residents near high-crime housing projects, problematic street corners, and bridges and other critical infrastructure. It helped pay for license plate readers and defrayed some of the cost of setting up Memphis's crime-analysis center. All together it has given Memphis $11 million since 2003 in homeland security grants, most of which the city has used to fight crime.

"We have got things now we didn't have before," said Memphis Police Department Director Larry Godwin, who has produced record numbers of arrests using all this new analysis and technology. "Some of them we can talk about. Some of them we can't."

One of the biggest advocates of Memphis's data revolution is John Harvey, the police department's technology specialist, whose computer systems are the civilian equivalent of the fancier special ops equipment used by the military.

Harvey collects any information he can pry out of government and industry. When officers were wasting time knocking on the wrong doors to serve warrants, he persuaded the local utility company to give him a daily update of the names and addresses of customers.

When he wanted more information about phones captured at crime scenes, he programmed a way to store all emergency 911 calls, which often include names and addresses to associate with phone numbers. He created another program to upload new crime reports every five minutes and mine them for the phone numbers of victims, suspects, witnesses and anyone else listed on them.

Now, instead of having to decide which license plate numbers to type into a computer console in the patrol car, an officer can simply drive around, and the automatic license plate reader on his hood captures the numbers on every vehicle nearby. If the officer pulls over a driver, instead of having to wait 20 minutes for someone back at the office to manually check records, he can use a hand-held device to instantly call up a mug shot, a Social Security number, the status of the driver's license and any outstanding warrants.

The computer in the cruiser can tell an officer even more about who owns the vehicle, the owner's name and address and criminal history, and who else with a criminal history might live at the same address.

Take a recent case of two officers with the hood-mounted camera equipment who stopped a man driving on a suspended license. One handcuffed him, and the other checked his own PDA. Based on the information that came up, the man was ordered downtown to pay a fine and released as the officers drove off to stop another car.

That wasn't the end of it, though.

A record of that stop - and the details of every other arrest made that night, and every summons written - was automatically transferred to the Memphis Real Time Crime Center, a command center with three walls of streaming surveillance video and analysis capabilities that rival those of an Army command center.

There, the information would be geocoded on a map to produce a visual rendering of crime patterns. This information would help the crime intelligence analysts predict trends so the department could figure out what neighborhoods to swarm with officers and surveillance cameras.

But that was still not the end of it, because the fingerprints from the crime records would also go to the FBI's data campus in Clarksburg, W.Va. There, fingerprints from across the United States are stored, along with others collected by American authorities from prisoners in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are 96 million sets of fingerprints in Clarksburg, a volume that government officials view not as daunting but as an opportunity.

This year for the first time, the FBI, the DHS and the Defense Department are able to search each other's fingerprint databases, said Myra Gray, head of the Defense Department's Biometrics Identity Management Agency, speaking to an industry group recently. "Hopefully in the not-too-distant future," she said, "our relationship with these federal agencies - along with state and local agencies - will be completely symbiotic."

The FBI's 'suspicious' files

At the same time that the FBI is expanding its West Virginia database, it is building a vast repository controlled by people who work in a top-secret vault on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building in Washington. This one stores the profiles of tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents who are not accused of any crime. What they have done is appear to be acting suspiciously to a town sheriff, a traffic cop or even a neighbor.
If the new Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, or SAR, works as intended, the Guardian database may someday hold files forwarded by all police departments across the country in America's continuing search for terrorists within its borders.

The effectiveness of this database depends, in fact, on collecting the identities of people who are not known criminals or terrorists - and on being able to quickly compile in-depth profiles of them.

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