Thompson: A time to share

We need to find a way for federal, state and local authorities to share terrorism information

Every day, state, local and tribal law enforcement officers ready themselves for the unexpected. Every call for help or call to action carries with it incredible risk. From the moment they dispatch to duty in the morning, they walk the “thin blue line,” putting their personal security second to the defense of our communities and in service to each and every one of us. These officers come from the same communities they protect, and they are our neighbors, our friends and our first line of defense against crime.

In government circles, we identify police officers as first responders, because the nature of their work places them first at the scene of crimes and calls for distress — they are the first line of defense between us and danger.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, police officers in every small town and large city around the country have watched their departments’ priorities evolve to include terrorism prevention and preparedness for response.

As the 9/11 Commission noted, these officers are well-positioned to observe unusual or suspicious behavior that could indicate emerging terrorist plots.

In this respect, many state, local and tribal law enforcement groups have received state and federal grants for training and equipment. But the real asset in terrorism prevention has yet to be effectively addressed. This critical tool is the sharing of information among all law enforcement partners.

Without this tool, information gathered by our intelligence services and federal law enforcement organizations is not declassified for use by local law enforcement officials.

What needs to be done is not an unattainable goal. As a matter of fact, officials in the United Kingdom have already developed tools to foster communication between local law enforcement and federal authorities in their newly created Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC).

JTAC brings together U.K. intelligence assets and national law enforcement entities with the Police International Counterterrorism Unit (PICU), which represents local law enforcement officials throughout the country.

This interface allows British officials to communicate down to the local level and identify intelligence important to officers on the ground so that it can be boiled down to eliminate information unnecessary to local law enforcement officials who can act on a lesser classified or unclassified report. At the same time, this approach also allows information sharing from the local level up.

In the United States, we are halfway there. Since Aug. 27, 2004, we have operated a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which brings together our nation’s intelligence assets under one roof. The missing component is representation from local, state and tribal law enforcement agencies.

On Dec. 28, 2005, my office released a report that analyzed this gap in our information-sharing apparatus and outlined a PICU-like solution to fulfill the missing half of the equation.

The report proposes an office called the Vertical Integrated Terrorism Analysis Link to augment NCTC. The office would be composed of state, local and tribal law enforcement officers with security clearances who could review and evaluate intelligence and create information products that could be quickly disseminated to local partners for actionable and informational purposes.

Thompson is a Democratic member of Congress representing Mississippi. He is the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

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