Dozens of law enforcement agencies protect Mid-Missouri, but for many years, these organizations worked largely independent of one another.
The raid of the Columbia-based Islamic American Relief Agency last week demonstrated how things have changed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Heart of America Joint Terrorism Task Force has brought officers from these agencies together to form a unified front in preventing terrorism.
After the attacks three years ago, the FBI realized that federal, state and local law enforcement officers could accomplish more if they worked together. To coordinate their efforts, the bureau initiated the area task force in January 2002.
Special Agent Jeff Lanza of the FBI office in Kansas City said that all members of the task force receive top secret clearance for information pertaining to their area. To receive this access, Lanza said members must undergo a background investigation.
Officers from 21 agencies in Kansas and the western two-thirds of Missouri work for the task force full time. Three officers from the Columbia Police Department work for the task force on a part-time basis.
Chief Randy Boehm and Capt. Mike Martin, the investigative division commander, also have clearance.
“They don’t have to have concerns with ‘Well, I can’t share this information with this member of the JTTF,’” Boehm said. “If you get that clearance, then you have the ability to communicate freely.”
Boehm said the local and federal agencies involved both contribute and benefit from the task force.
“There are resources and personnel that the FBI has that simply we don’t have the availability of,” Boehm said. “On the other hand, we have knowledge of our own local community and of the people that live in our community that the FBI doesn’t have. So, working together, we find that we’re much more efficient and effective in conducting investigations.”
The addition of an FBI supervisor to the field office in Jefferson City this summer has also improved the department’s communication with the bureau. Boehm said he and the new supervisor speak regularly. Previously, the nearest supervisor worked out of the FBI’s Springfield, Mo., office.
In addition to allowing these agencies to share knowledge with one another, another goal of the task force is to let them act together during investigations.
The ongoing federal investigation of the charity in Columbia is focusing on records and data that were taken in several searches last week. The U.S. Treasury Department alleges that the Islamic American Relief Agency is part of an international network of charities that were providing financial support to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and Hamas.
During the FBI investigation in Columbia, members of the task force from the police department conducted surveillance of persons involved with the charity, Boehm said. He added, however, that he could provide no details about the surveillance, calling it “sensitive information.”
However, local officers do not necessarily have to be members of the task force to assist with federal investigations.
“The key is how much information the officer needs to have to do the job they’re assigned,” Boehm said.
There are dozens of similar task forces across the country. The FBI started the first task force in 1980, but the number more than doubled after Sept. 11, 2001. Nationwide, more than 2,300 personnel belong to the task forces, which are based out of all 56 main FBI field offices and 10 smaller offices.