Fusing Intelligence

The Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center looks strategically at local and global criminal activities to thwart terrorism.

by Jessica Weidling / November 14, 2006
As the monthlong Israeli-Hezbollah conflict embroiled the Middle East earlier this year, a group of analysts working on the seventh floor of an inconspicuous office building in Norwalk, Calif., near Los Angeles, started to connect some dots.

In a room with low cubicles -- to ease the flow of communication -- specialists in areas like epidemiology, hazardous material and terrorism intelligence began analyzing information, and assessing various situations, possible threats and potential targets.

Through the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), intelligence -- information valued for its currency and relevancy -- was furnished to agencies throughout Southern California, sending officers to reinforce sensitive locations, like the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Soon after, on July 28, 2006 --1,200 miles from Los Angeles -- a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, wounding five women and killing one.

While cities scrambled to protect their Jewish centers, the greater Los Angeles area was already prepared, thanks to the JRIC's foresight, said John Miller, FBI assistant director of public affairs.

With its landmark model of interagency cooperation, the center is one step ahead of counter-terrorism efforts nationwide, predicting threatening situations instead of reacting to them, Miller said.

The JRIC, a multiagency fusion center, looks strategically at all criminal activities locally and internationally. Since opening in July, the center has grabbed the intelligence community's attention and received praise from law enforcement agencies.

The Bigger Picture

In the run-up to 9/11, the FBI recognized, but failed to communicate, that suspicious characters were taking flying lessons, and the CIA knew a couple of terrorists had entered the country, but didn't notify the appropriate parties.

"One of the big identified failings of 9/11 was the fact that a lot of different law enforcement agencies had a lot of different information about the hijackers, but didn't share it with each other," said Chris Bertelli, deputy director of the California Office of Homeland Security.

As a result, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies turned to increased communication as a weapon against terrorism.

In California, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security committed $20 million in 2003 to provide technology for four new fusion centers -- places for intelligent information gathering, speedy analysis and interagency working groups, Bertelli said.

At about the same time, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) drafted plans to build a center patterned after narcotic clearing-houses, and the FBI's intelligence branch was set to spend $2 million to consolidate federal, state and local agency information under one roof.

"This one is unique in the scale and breadth of the project," said John McCarthy, director of law enforcement solutions for Memex, the center's software provider. "There is an unprecedented level of participation."

The JRIC communicates with more than 200 agencies, houses analysts from 15 agencies and serves 18 million people, according to the LAPD blog. It is responsible for more than 40,000 square miles of urban expanse, covering the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

The center will soon double its personnel from 30 to 60, and open its doors 24/7.

The JRIC chose Norwalk because it neighbors the Los Angeles Joint Drug Intelligence Group (JDIG), which uses databases the center needs, Miller said.

"Rather than reinvent the wheel, we literally pulled the wires up from under the floor and grew out of JDIG," said Miller, who worked for the LAPD's Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau before joining the FBI.

Miller said JDIG also contributed personnel to the center, helping to smooth the JRIC's opening operations.

Southern California makes a good home for the JRIC because of the many potential terrorist targets, Miller said, pointing to the Oscars, Emmys, major sporting events, marathons and the symbolic Hollywood, to name a few.

The center -- the first national counter-terrorism hub to house full-time Homeland Security analysts and a host of FBI personnel -- is primarily run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the FBI, the LAPD and the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group.

Before, each local, state and federal agency had its own intelligence branch working with smaller regional Terrorism Threat Assessment Centers. Now everyone is exposed to the bigger picture, Miller said.

"Everybody was collecting the dots; everybody was connecting the dots," he said, but they weren't doing so collectively. "Now we have true fusion."

Under the Influence

In the past, joint intelligence centers were primarily used to catch drug traffickers, said William Vizzard, professor and chair of the department of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento.

During the Nixon administration, federal grants funded joint intelligence centers to crack down on drug trafficking, pool personnel resources, and avoid the redundancy -- often detrimental -- of having various agencies unknowingly working on the same case.

Drug trafficking and terrorism are similar in that they constitute transjurisdictional crimes, Vizzard said, adding the perpetrators also travel over vast land distances, layer themselves inside organizations and associate in small groups.

Miller said the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) -- a federally funded program with more than 30 centers nationwide, including Los Angeles -- provided the footprint for fusion centers to follow.

The HIDTA, a result of the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, links federal, state and local law enforcement in areas of concentrated drug trafficking the same way the JRIC joins agencies together in an urban area vulnerable to terrorist threats.

Fusing Technology

The center has a slick CSI-look, complete with the latest in link charts, word processing and telephones, in addition to giant multimedia monitors, personal flat-panel screens and high-end computers with ample storage for intelligence information.

Memex's software, a portal specifically designed for the center, provides intelligence management, and search and analysis functions to help analysts seek pertinent information.

"A center like this gets you a portal so a fire hydrant of information can go into that filtering system," Miller said.

The software is put into motion when an intelligence lead -- in the form of text, photo, video or sound -- is uploaded and made searchable, Memex's McCarthy said. For example, he explained, if using a partial license plate from a vehicle, the system mines the query through all information stored in the database. Once a hit is found, the analyst gets an e-mail alert. And if a case is opened, it is sent to an agency outside the JRIC for further investigation.

"We're analytical in nature," said LAPD Lt. Robert Fox of the JRIC. "We don't do investigations, we foster investigations."

While FBI personnel have top-secret clearances, the Memex system is only configured for sensitive -- not classified -- information, to serve a broader working environment.

However, all information exiting the center gets declassified, which usually means deleting where the information came from and how it was discovered, Miller said, not changing the information.

Tips come via fax, e-mail, phone call or an FBI 1-800 number, said Mario Cruz, the center's IT project manager, who said the JRIC combats all crimes, but a separate FBI group embedded in the center called the Threat Squad deals strictly with thwarting terrorism and threats to public safety.

Although the system is cutting-edge, it's not perfect, Cruz said, adding that Memex is working on ways to move and share information more freely and customize it so that analysts will have a virtual office communication system at their desktops.

Making Connections

The JRIC's design is meant to encourage communication, with low cubicles and analysts working side by side.

"We have more than 15 agencies in close proximity sharing information the old-fashioned way," McCarthy said. "It's very important to have the human element because it's where those trust relationships are built."

Each of the more than 200 contributing agencies lends support either through funding or personnel, Cruz said. Agencies involved include the U.S. Coast Guard, sheriffs from the seven participating counties, and municipal law enforcement agencies throughout the Southland area.

Vizzard suggests that while increased communication is necessary between agencies and people, all information is not equal in the intelligence world, and must still be filtered by analysts who subject it to human judgment.

"The problem is not a lack of information, but too much information of questionable quality," he said. "And in that huge amount of information is a jewel. We've been trying to figure out for decades what piece of information it is -- how you find it, how you recognize it and how you should act."

While terrorist red flags exist -- like money laundering and suspicious phone conversations -- there's no foolproof formula to follow, he said. "If you get three to five people in a [terrorist] cell, and they don't do anything with money, and they don't talk on phones," Vizzard said, "finding them can be very difficult."

The need for fusion centers arises from the large and fragmented U.S. law enforcement bureaucracy, he added. "One reason you need these intelligence centers is you have so many damn agencies."

The LAPD's Fox, who is also the JRIC's co-program manager, said while it's hard to identify success stories in the intelligence business, he regularly uses the JRIC to discredit bogus information. This alone, he said, validates the center's work.

"Every day we tell my boss, 'You are going to hear this threat and it's not credible,' we save money and overtime, and could save millions of dollars in one weekend," Fox said.

Also, Miller said the center heightens the analysts' predictive skills. "This is the answer to too much information," he said.

Future of Intelligence

To date, there are 38 fusion centers nationwide -- including New York City, Reisterstown, Md., and Baton Rouge, La. -- and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has invested $380 million in these projects.

Bertelli said California took a leadership role in building centers similar to the JRIC, and is planning others in San Francisco and San Diego.

In addition, a Sacramento center is in the works.

"I've heard it talked about -- how this is a trend-setting movement and something the DHS will be encouraging in other places around the nation as well," Bertelli said.

Miller agrees the centers are here to stay.

"The true value of the JRIC to the seven counties is the ability of the analysts to access the best information they need to know, and disseminate it to the street agencies," he said. "I'm looking to it to be a model for the country."