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War Room's Eyes Out for Terror

Safety: Data center links the intelligence gathering of police agencies statewide.

September 10, 2002|WILLIAM OVEREND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hidden away in an industrial park in the City of Commerce is the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center for Los Angeles County. The sign near the entrance says it all: "War Room."

Inside, on the walls, are four large screens, pinpointing major law enforcement operations in progress. On a busy day, about a dozen computer operators are needed to track it all.

This isn't something out of a Tom Clancy book, where high-level officials watch secret operations as they unfold via satellite feed. At least not yet. The technology is limited: the computers, a couple of TVs, the large locator screens.

But officials say this is a crucial part of California's post-9/11 anti-terror network, intended to link 100,000 law enforcement officers around the state. If a terrorist network in California is ever to be found, state officials think the break might come at this grass-roots level. And the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, or CATIC, could provide intelligence that paves the way.

"It's probably the one element in the whole anti-terror structure that's going to give us the one nugget we need someday, that final piece of the puzzle," said George Vinson, chief anti-terror advisor to Gov. Gray Davis. "That's because the information coming into CATIC is coming from street cops who are out there. While the FBI may end up putting 80% of the puzzle together with the high-level intelligence it gathers, I think it's going to ultimately come down to the cop on the street who notices something strange one day."

In addition to the Los Angeles County center, there are now special state Department of Justice task force operations scattered throughout the state. There is another room like this in Sacramento, and there are offices in Fresno, Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Shasta counties.

The California Anti-Terrorism Information Center system is one of three components in the state's homeland defense network, Vinson said.

At the highest level are Joint Terrorism Task Forces run by the FBI, involving the CIA and all major urban police agencies. Those groups are deluged daily with secret global, national and local intelligence.

Then come regional response teams known as Terrorist Early Warning Groups, often headed by local sheriffs. These are assigned the job of coordinating the immediate response to any terrorist incident.

"We become the intelligence arm at the street level for everybody else," said Ed Manavian, chief of the criminal intelligence bureau for the state Department of Justice. "We work anything, and once we find something we pass it along."

The California Anti-Terrorism Information Center links them all. Right after Sept. 11, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer gave Manavian responsibility for putting the center together. To move fast, he borrowed from existing law enforcement systems whenever possible.

Area police chiefs already had a drug-tracking system available through the Los Angeles County Regional Criminal Information Clearinghouse, and the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center was allowed to share one of its rooms in the City of Commerce.

On any given day, symbols flashing on the room's large screens show hundreds of drug raids and stakeouts in progress just in the Los Angeles County area. The screens might locate one or two anti-terrorist investigations. Officials expect it will pretty much stay that way.

Manavian sees drug dealing and terrorism as a natural pairing. He believes that Al Qaeda terrorists entering California would have to, at some point, hook up with local drug dealers linked to the Middle East or possibly to East European crime groups that would have the kind of money needed to help hide and protect the terrorists.

At the moment, a particular interest is the Middle Eastern dominance in the smuggling of pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient of methamphetamine, into the United States from Canada, where it is not illegal.

A couple of major busts in that area could help produce an important informant or two down the line, Manavian said. That's often how secret organizations are ultimately penetrated.

Meanwhile, a major preoccupation for Manavian and other top state and federal anti-terror officials is keeping communication lines open and avoiding the kind of turf problems that arise frequently among rival law enforcement agencies.

At all levels, officials say, there has been so much intelligence to process this year that they have suffered from information overload at times. But they are still at a stage where almost all tips must be checked. A major goal for this year is improving analysis capabilities.

"It's as important that we get our information out as it is for them to get their information to us," said FBI Assistant Director Ron Iden, head of the Los Angeles division.

"When anything strikes me as potentially important, I'm on the phone personally to the top people in the LAPD and the Orange County and Los Angeles [County] sheriff's departments. We all have to share on this one."

Still, at least some of the top-secret information received by the FBI can be passed along only in general form for reasons of national security.

That was one reason for another decision made by Manavian and top officials immediately after Sept. 11: They refused to accept any information that could not also be legally passed on to the public.

"We don't want people in the dark," said Vinson, the governor's chief anti-terrorism advisor. "If there is a threat anywhere, law enforcement will know about it. We will give it to them if they ask or not."

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