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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

In Cities, the Fight Against Terrorism Walks the Beat

In May, a Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer stopped a car for speeding. He noticed that the driver was sweating and gripping the steering wheel nervously, while refusing to answer basic questions. In May, a Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle officer stopped a car for speeding. He noticed that the driver was sweating and gripping the steering wheel nervously, while refusing to answer basic questions.

It's nothing fancy, and that's the point. Ever since 9/11, the connect-the-dots problem has preoccupied law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. The 9/11 Commission noted that stopping the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon would have been much easier if someone had connected the reports of suspicious men taking flying lessons.

Yet efforts by the Department of Homeland Security, newly created after 9/11, and others have failed to integrate communications among disparate agencies. The federal government has made multiple efforts to link databases and often found itself snarled in technology messes.

Last month, the White House asked the department to put on hold new spending on an alert system that carries a price tag of more than $150 million. The system was supposed to provide threat information to local officials, but government reports suggested it was too hard to use.

Now the LAPD is trying to build a system from the ground up. The eight-month-old program has generated 1,000 suspicious-activity reports using a common template and already nabbed several people who provided critical information to federal terrorism investigations, LAPD officials say. [Mark Godsey]

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