FBI shares threat-tips with local police

January 13, 2009 5:13:50 PM PST
The FBI has launched a system to share tips about possible terror threats with local police agencies just in time for the presidential inauguration. The program aims to get law enforcement at all levels sharing data quickly about suspicious activity and people, particularly in and around the nation's capital in the week leading up to the historic ceremony.

Officials say they are getting as many as 1,000 tips a day from the public.

Called e-Guardian, the program had been delayed and underwent a smaller pilot project before launching New Year's Eve as a system available to law enforcement agencies around the country.

Federal authorities hope the new system overcomes a drawback of another version, which lets police report their suspicions to the FBI but doesn't allow officers to search the system for similar patterns in other jurisdictions.

The program "will allow all law enforcement to share threats and suspicious activity and hopefully prevent a terrorist attack," said FBI supervisor Gerald Rogero, in Washington.

Of the 1,000 tips a day from the public, a dozen might be worth recording in the new law enforcement system.

With e-Guardian, Rogero said, those specific reports can be quickly checked by police in far-flung jurisdictions in case they have noticed something similar, such as a wave of uniform thefts or stolen military equipment.

Any law enforcement officer with an Internet connection and an account on the system can access e-Guardian.

That ease of access could be the worst thing about the program, said American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel Michael German.

"The concern is, what's being collected, who is it being shared with, and who is responsible for any action taken as a result?" said German, a former FBI agent. "If the federal government is creating this national system, it's their responsibility that only the proper and correct information is being put in."

Federal officials say there is a vetting process already in place to check the accuracy of the information put into the system. Users are trained in civil liberties protections.

Currently, more than 400 law enforcement officials have opened individual e-Guardian accounts. Agency officials hope it will prove useful and eventually spread to the 18,000 different law enforcement agencies in the country.

Since the 2001 terror attacks, the government has launched a number of different programs to both analyze and share threat information quickly. Early incarnations were criticized as haphazard.

Officials say e-Guardian is part of a bigger, faster national system of suspicious activity reporting spanning law enforcement agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, and a section of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

FBI Assistant Director Ronald Ruecker said the new system will allow "near-real time information sharing with our other federal, state, local, tribal, and campus public safety partners around the country."

Not everyone is sold, however.

The New York Police Department is not participating because officials say they already have a threat-sharing system through their joint terrorism task force with the FBI.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said e-Guardian "is for smaller jurisdictions that don't have that relationship."