An Idea Whose Time Has Arrived

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

Can federal, state, county and local authorities effectively collect and share information? An initiative launched in the wake of 9/11 aims to break old habits and better protect the homeland.

An Idea Whose Time Has Arrived

Now there's the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, an idea that started in the LAPD's anti-terrorism unit and won backing from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the FBI before it was adopted by other agencies in the region. It's taken more than three years to plan and launch. Ultimately, it is supposed to connect agencies across seven Southern California counties—fire departments, public health agencies, port police, airport police and many others—with international law enforcement agencies and local companies, like Disney, that oversee potential targets or important pieces of local infrastructure.

Analysts who work in the center think it's an idea whose time has arrived.

Information technology has advanced since 2001, and the center benefits from that. Newer standards like Global Justice XML, which creates a common language for justice and public safety data; and service-oriented architecture, which exposes that data across different computer systems, make it faster and easier for agencies to share information. Right now, the chief software at the center—Memex, made by Glasgow, Scotland-based Memex Technology—is based on these standards.

Memex is Windows-based collaboration software that collects, manages, secures and disseminates information according to rules set by the participants. At the center, it runs on multiple redundant servers. It searches both structured data (database fields) and unstructured data (free-form notes) and can sort, link or display data visually. Memex also tracks and purges information according to federal law, which restricts the type of criminal intelligence law enforcement agencies are allowed to collect and how long they can keep it on computers.

But technology will not determine whether the center succeeds, says project manager Mario Cruz. It's how the agencies involved in the center work out differences over what information to share and how to share it.

Every tip or lead that passes through Memex and every process that the data goes through—such as who is allowed to see it—have to be looked at, Cruz says, because "you can't just drop information out there and not know where it goes.

"[If I have information], how do I notify you?" he asks. "If I notify you, how do you reply? If information drops, is there a log of that information? Is it accurate? Did any follow-up or investigation result?"

The room housing the center is especially designed for information sharing, says LAPD police chief William Bratton. He points to the waist-high walls between cubicles and the long table bisecting the middle of the room "so people can hang out and talk, so information is diffused."

There's an advantage to having people from so many agencies working here. On July 3, 2005, says Professor Southers, four days before the London subway bombing, a man passing by the Santa Monica pier noticed three men taking videos of the access control system, the police substation and the pier's underside. He photographed them. More than two weeks later on July 21, the day of the second London bombing, he felt nervous and took his photos to the Santa Monica Police Department, which turned them over to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. The FBI had tips that three men were taking videos at the Huntington Beach pier and at a third location. They turned out to be the same people. The men were investigated and found to pose no threat, according to the FBI.

Had the center existed, law enforcement would have figured it out more quickly, Southers says: "Now, everybody involved in the Santa Monica caper sits in the JRIC in the same building."

"[We want to] get plots and plans disrupted across jurisdictions," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said when he visited the center on Aug. 18. "It's existed to a degree in the past, but it's not institutionalized."

The JRIC, one of four regional terrorism threat assessment centers in California, covers the same territory as the FBI's divisions in that state. The idea is to have 38 centers throughout the nation, Chertoff says, although he calls this center "the most adventurous in the country."

During the years it took to plan the center, people representing the LAPD, sheriff's department, FBI and other agencies sat in a room with a whiteboard and imagined how it could work, according to Stanley Salas, an LAPD detective involved since the center's early days. As the idea took shape, he says, the concept of the center changed.

People from agencies serving only part of the Los Angeles area had to learn to think about the whole region, he says. They had to learn to share resources—to justify committing $2 million from city or grant funds to a joint intelligence center without being sure what they'd get out of it. They had to find people within their agencies who could put aside any institutional biases and work with others.

"The people who work here now are interested in analysis and cooperation," Salas says. "They really want this."

In the end, the FBI helped build the center because the federal government had the specifications and knew what to do, Salas explains. The sheriff's department contributed desks, PCs and telephones, and the LAPD (which is also using Memex) provided information-sharing technology, including software and TVs.

Today, center workers use a variety of analytical tools—Google Earth, ESRI's ArcView GIS software, and Microsoft SQL, among others—to sift through information. The network is protected by a double firewall, encryption and the strongest password system, and it discourages human engineering. Nobody can call to get a password changed, Cruz says, and when people leave the center, their network accounts are expunged.

However, no agency can connect electronically to any other agency's network or databases, because agreements to share information are not yet in place. A high-speed T1 line runs between the center and the LAPD's Major Crimes Division, which Cruz calls "a start." That division includes criminal history databases; the Project Archangel database, which tracks the security of high-risk locations such as the US Bank Tower in downtown Los Angeles; and an Internet-based regional public-private infrastructure communication system, which Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power use to communicate possible threats to the police.

NEXT PAGE: The FBI: A Special Case

This article was originally published on 2006-10-02
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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