New program will boost security at military bases

Wednesday, October 6, 2010 - 4:11pm

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Nearly a year after a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, the Pentagon is taking new steps to beef up security and surveillance programs at its bases, and will join an FBI intelligence-sharing program aimed at identifying future terror threats, U.S. officials said.

The new partnership with the FBI's eGuardian program comes two years after the Pentagon shut down a controversial anti-terror database that collected reports of suspicious activity near military installations. The now-defunct program, called TALON, was closed after revelations it had improperly stored information on peace activists.

Defense officials have moved carefully to set up the new programs, trying to balance the protection of the nation's armed forces with the privacy and civil rights of Americans.

The decision to use the FBI's program is part of a broader campaign to beef up security at military facilities and better identify terror threats among its troops, senior Defense officials said. Over the past 18 months some of those threats have been deadly, as attackers spurred on by Islamic extremism and opposition to U.S. wars abroad have targeted troops at home.

According to an accounting by the Congressional Research Service as many as 20 terror plots have played out on American soil since May 2009, but only two have led to fatalities. Both of those attacks - at Fort Hood and earlier in 2009 in Arkansas - occurred at military facilities.

Last November Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan allegedly gunned down 13 people and wounded dozens more in a shooting spree at Fort Hood.

In other attack, Abdulhakim Muhammad, born Carlos Bledsoe, is accused of shooting and killing one soldier and wounding another outside a recruiting center in Little Rock, Ark. Muhammad, an Islam convert, told The Associated Press the shooting was retaliation for U.S. military action in the Middle East.

The others include the botched Christmas Day airliner attack, the attempted Times Square truck bombing and the foiled plan to wage attacks in the New York subway systems.

Internal reviews triggered by the Fort Hood attack are scheduled to be released later this week, and will focus on new efforts to ensure that information on possible threats is passed from base to base. They will also call for better communications before and during an attack, including efforts to keep local law enforcement in the loop and procedures to warn personnel to stay away during an incident, officials said.

Senior military officials spoke about the plans on condition of anonymity because the contents have not yet been released publicly.

The Fort Hood attack spurred the military to make a wide array of changes after critical security lapses were identified. One such lapse was that although a local joint terrorism task force run by the FBI had learned months earlier of Hasan's e-mail contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen who encouraged Muslims to kill U.S. troops, the information was not adequately shared with the Pentagon.

The military's move to eGuardian was set in motion two years ago, before the two terror attacks, but it will become part of the improved information sharing that officials believe is needed at the bases.

Use of the FBI database will be phased in over the next 15 months and allow military police and analysts to share information on suspected terrorist threats with local, state and federal law enforcement across the country.

Each report is reviewed by trained supervisors to make sure it represents a possible terror threat and doesn't simply involve activities protected by the First Amendment - such as war protests, officials said.

"If you engage in First Amendment activity and that is all you are doing, there is nothing to be investigated," said Brian O'Hare, FBI supervisory special agent and eGuardian program manager. "There has to be an identified or articulated behavior which causes the submitting agency to be concerned about a potential nexus to terrorism."

But the program has already provoked suspicion among civil rights groups who charge that such databases may improperly collect and store information on innocent people. TALON, the Pentagon's now-closed database, was shut down in September 2007 after officials found it included information on nearly four dozen anti-war meetings or protests. Some of the protests took place far from any military installation.

Civil rights groups have asked for a more detailed account of the information being collected.

The program "opens the door to the police basically targeting people that they don't like for improper reasons like racial bias, religious bias or some other bias, rather than actually focusing on criminal behavior," said Mike German, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

German said the program could also create pressure to store more information in the system, causing officials to lower their standards on the amount or type of evidence needed to justify a report.

Law enforcement and defense officials insist the almost two-year-old eGuardian program has safeguards built in to protect civil rights, including ongoing training, layers of reviews by trained officers and a process that purges unsubstantiated reports.

According to the officials, there are more than 2,500 police personnel in nearly 820 agencies across the country using the FBI program, including most of the country's largest police departments. On average, 15-25 reports of suspicious activity are filed each day, and the system now includes more than 5,700 reports.

Since the eGuardian system launched in January 2009, the FBI has opened 96 investigations involving domestic, international, or cyber terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction. There have been arrests in five cases, though officials would not provide any other details.

A senior military official said joining the FBI program is expected to cost the Defense Department about $2.8 million each year.

"This helps us to paint a better threat picture with respect to terrorism in the United States and around the world, utilizing the resources of our DOD (Defense Department) law enforcement partners," said O'Hare. "As long as the information meets the standards, it's valuable information."
 

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