LAKEWOOD, Colo. — On a single day in August, police investigated a bomb threat in Colorado Springs while, 850 miles away, officers checked out a suspicious package at an Air Force base in Missouri. Analysts at a Colorado intelligence center monitored both investigations to determine if there was any connection involving a single plot and the Air Force.
There wasn't. But if there were, the Colorado center would have alerted law enforcement in both states, using real-time analysis that might not have been possible a decade ago.
Analysts at the Colorado Information Analysis Center in Lakewood process pieces of information from police across the country that, taken alone, might not make sense. Created after the 9/11 attacks, it's one of 50 state "fusion centers," plus more than 20 regional centers.
Analysts from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the military, the state highway patrol and local police departments examine crime reports and tips on suspicious activity. In Colorado, many of those tips come from more than 500 "terrorism liaison officers" serving with local police agencies.
The center has a nearly $1 million annual budget funded by federal grants. It includes a secure room with videoconference links to FBI and Homeland Security headquarters.
Homeland Security spent $327 million between 2004 and 2008 establishing the fusion centers to better share intelligence and avoid a repeat of missed opportunities before the 9/11 attacks.
Among them, according to a 2004 report issued by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States:
- A Phoenix FBI field agent's report about suspicious activity at civilian flight schools in the U.S. went unnoticed.
- Conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested 3 1/2 weeks before the attacks after a flight instructor became suspicious. But the arrest failed to raise a national alarm about a possible plot. Moussaoui is serving a life sentence at Supermax in Colorado.
Also in 2001, a Florida arrest warrant for hijacker Mohammed Atta went unnoticed. Atta was wanted for driving without a license but was let go after an unrelated traffic stop in Florida two months before the attacks.
"He could have been sitting in jail on Sept. 11, but there was no system for quickly sharing this information," said the Colorado center's deputy director, Rich Smith.
Civil rights groups view the centers with suspicion, fearing they could be used to spy on Americans. There have been some missteps.
In 2009, Missouri's fusion center issued a report that said supporters of GOP Rep. Ron Paul of Texas posed a security threat. In 2010, Pennsylvania ended its contract with a private company that produced warnings for distribution by that state's fusion center. The firm had issued reports on peaceful protesters.
"Unfortunately (the centers) were built at such a rapid pace without sufficient controls to ensure they were reaching into areas that they shouldn't be," said American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel Michael German.
Publicly, Colorado's center has operated free of such intrusions. It also has had its share of activity.
Center analysts helped coordinate evidence in building the case against Denver airport shuttle driver Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty in 2010 of plotting to bomb New York City's subways.
Authorities said Zazi was trained by al-Qaida in Pakistan and cooked up explosives using supplies from beauty stores in suburban Denver. The FBI turned to the Lakewood center for help in identifying what supplies Zazi purchased and where, said Jim Davis, who oversees the Colorado Department of Public Safety.
For its efforts, the CIAC was named top fusion center for 2009.
On April 20, analysts quickly determined that a crude bomb found at a Littleton shopping mall on the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings was likely the work of a single person with little training and didn't mark the start of a larger attack. Earl Albert Moore, who had spent 18 of the past 27 years bouncing through federal prisons, was arrested April 26 at a Boulder grocery.
In the weeks leading up to this year's 9/11 anniversary, auto theft analyst Robert D. Force looked for van or large vehicle thefts that could be used in an attack. No such trends emerged.
And on Aug. 31, center analysts monitored both a report of suspicious packages at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and a bomb threat at a Walmart in Colorado Springs, home to Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases and the Air Force Academy. Nothing suspicious was found at the Illinois base, while the bomb threat at Walmart turned out to be a hoax.
"A very large percentage of these suspicious reports end up being nothing," said center director Dana C. Reynolds of the Colorado Department of Public Safety. "But we check them out to be sure."