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Terrorism Information Sharing and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Report Initiative: Background and Issues for Congress

CRS Report R40901 – Terrorism Information Sharing and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Report Initiative: Background and Issues for Congress, November 05, 2009

  • “The 2004 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) cited breakdowns in information sharing and the failure to fuse pertinent intelligence (i.e., “connecting the dots”) as key factors in the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Efforts undertaken since 2001 to tackle these issues include the following: • Congress mandated the creation of an information-sharing environment (commonly known as the “ISE”) that would provide and facilitate the means of sharing terrorism information among all appropriate federal, state, local, and tribal entities and the private sector through the use of policy guidelines and technologies. • States and major urban areas established intelligence fusion centers to coordinate the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of law enforcement, homeland security, public safety, and terrorism intelligence and analysis. • Various data mining programs were initiated in an effort to uncover terrorism plots. Data mining involves pattern-based queries, searches, or other analyses of one or more electronic databases. The imperative for the exchange of terrorism-related intelligence information among law enforcement and security officials at all levels of government is founded on three propositions. The first is that any terrorist attack in the homeland will necessarily occur in a community within a state or tribal area, and the initial response to it will be by state, local, and tribal emergency responders and law enforcement officials. Second, the plotting and preparation for a terrorist attack within the United States (such as surveillance of a target, acquisition and transport of weapons or explosives, and even the recruitment of participants) will also occur within local communities. Third, “[i]nformation acquired for one purpose, or under one set of authorities, might provide unique insights when combined, in accordance with applicable law, with seemingly unrelated information from other sources.” Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) contain information about criminal activity that may also reveal terrorist pre-operational planning. Many believe that the sharing of SARs among all levels of government and the fusing of these reports with other intelligence information will help uncover terrorist plots within the United States. The Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI) is an effort to have most federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement organizations participate in a standardized, integrated approach to gathering, documenting, processing, and analyzing terrorism-related SARs. The NSI is designed to respond to the mandate of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-458), for a “decentralized, distributed, and coordinated [information sharing] environment … with ‚applicable legal standards relating to privacy and civil liberties.'” This report describes the NSI, the rationale for the sharing of terrorism-related SARs, and how the NSI seeks to achieve this objective. It examines the privacy and civil liberties concerns raised by the initiative and identifies other oversight issues for Congress.”
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