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Worthy data-collecting requires diligent oversight

Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

The words are stark and intended to provoke thought, as good newspaper journalism often does:

"Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.

"The system ... collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing."

That's how The Washington Post begins the latest installment in its "Top Secret America" series on our nation's growing intelligence infrastructure. The goal, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin write, is to have every state and local law enforcement agency feed information to Washington, where the FBI directs U.S. anti-terrorism investigation.

Good, you say. More eyes and ears on the street possibly including your own mean fewer places for potential terrorists to hide.

Bad, you say. "It opens a door to all kind of abuses," says Michael German, a former FBI agent now with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Both views have merit. This newspaper leans toward the more-eyes-fewer-terrorism-threats idea, but no one should discount the potential for abuse, not when there are dozens of such examples in our recent history.

Yet concern should not equal paralysis. This data-collecting effort has its roots in the 9/11 commission report, released in July 2004, which criticized the federal government for "stovepiping" its intelligence gathering and analysis among more than a dozen agencies. Information that should have been shared wasn't.

Over the years, one result has been a growing number of Fusion Centers, where local law enforcement gathers and analyzes intelligence on criminal suspicions, up to and including terrorism. Dallas has one, and David Kunkle, who as police chief championed its formation in January 2007, would later credit it with helping to cut the city's crime rate.

The 9/11 commission noted that our nation's inability to "connect the dots" led, in large part, to that fateful terrorist attack. The FBI has thousands of agents, but they are only a tiny fraction compared with the number of local police and sheriff's deputies.

"If we want to get to the point where we connect the dots, the dots have to be there," says Richard A. McFeely, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office.

Yet something as vast as this database requires special oversight. That falls to Congress, which owes its constituents nothing less than diligence.

That means regular hearings and progress reports and tighter controls over where and how the money is being spent. It's discouraging that, according to The Post, the Department of Homeland Security doesn't know how much it has spent on the 70 or more Fusion Centers.

And it's not hard to imagine a WikiLeaks-style theft and dump of this sensitive information. The best way to avoid such a disaster is regular, sharp-eyed scrutiny on the front end.



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