About a year ago, a police officer in Maryland noticed a truck loaded with plastic pallets driving down a main road in the early morning. He normally wouldn't have given it a second look, but the officer had seen a bulletin from the state's "coordination and analysis center" advising that such thefts were costing bakeries and grocers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sure enough, the pallets were stolen.
Cracking down on pallet thieves wasn't quite the mission envisioned for "fusion centers," 72 facilities across the country that were started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks to improve information-sharing and threat analysis among local law enforcement.
The centers, which have received $426 million in federal funding since 2004, were designed as an early warning system against the next attack. Lately, amid the recent uptick in homegrown plots, the Homeland Security Department has been touting fusion centers as a means of thwarting domestic terrorism.
But it turns out that homegrown terrorism pales in frequency and fatalities compared with typical street crime, so many of the centers have begun collecting and distributing criminal intelligence, even of the most mundane kind.
In the process, Homeland Security Department officials say, the centers are developing a system to receive, sort and share crucial information. And they say it's too soon to judge the program, which is likely to grow in importance as a tool in detecting terrorism before it erupts.
"I'm a big supporter because of their potential," said Mohamed Elibiary, a Texas-based Muslim activist who advises the Homeland Security Department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. "If you want the government to function effectively, you need proper information sharing and analysis."
Critics argue that the centers are another potential intrusion on citizens' rights, and that having 72 of them guarantees bureaucratic overkill. Many centers make extensive use of private contractors. And the methods used are inconsistent from one to the next, raising questions about whether some of them are performing vital work.
"We thought if we just threw the name out there, built a bunch of them, we'd feel a lot better," former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said this month at George Washington University. "And I frankly think there's too many of them. We still don't have quite the protocol we need to make sure that they're effective."
Homeland Security Department officials say that by the end of the year, all 72 fusion centers will have to demonstrate competency in four key areas, showing that they are able to receive classified threat information from the federal government; analyze that information in a local context; disseminate it to local agencies; and gather tips from the public.
Civil liberties activists point to a series of privacy and civil rights flaps associated with fusion centers. They say the public is kept in the dark about what databases analysts are searching, what information they are gathering and what drives their priorities.
Information sharing is "a laudable goal," but "is this worth the risk to privacy and civil liberties?" asked Michael German, a former FBI agent who is national security counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We certainly have a long history of police intelligence powers, so we know that this is a problematic approach to policing."
Fusion centers don't conduct criminal investigations. Instead, analysts, who are borrowed from federal, state and local agencies, dive into dozens of databases to develop threat assessments and make sense of emerging trends.
The Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center has fielded more than 2,000 tips and leads this year, director Leslie Gardner said, half of which were substantive enough to forward to the FBI-led task force that investigates terrorism crimes.
Homeland Security Department officials and fusion center officers say they pay close attention to civil and privacy rights.
Analysts at the centers don't run names without "reasonable suspicion," a decades-old law enforcement standard, officials say, and they don't have access to such records as credit card transactions without a court-approved search warrant.
There have been lapses. A Texas fusion center drew criticism last year for urging law enforcement to monitor Muslim and antiwar "lobbying groups."
"I really believe that [abuses] are the exception, not the rule," said Bart Johnson, who supervises fusion centers for the Homeland Security Department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The agency requires each fusion center to have a privacy and civil liberties policy, he said.
That's necessary because analysts have access to a variety of commercial and government databases that can produce a stream of personal information, including unlisted phone numbers and other details not readily available to the public.
That can be useful. In 2008, after the poison ricin was found in a Las Vegas hotel, "We get a call [from police] that a guy came into our hospital and said, 'I'm making ricin, I think I'm gonna die,' and then he left," said Ronald Brooks, who heads the Northern California fusion center in San Francisco.
The man left a phone number but not a name. Computer searches on the number led them to the man. "It turned out there was no ricin; he was mentally ill," Brooks said.
"Nobody knew who to call, so they called us," he said. "That's the beauty of fusion centers. When you harness the power of eyes and ears of 18,000 state and local and tribal departments — 840,000 cops … that's a lot of eyes and ears on the ground."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has started an initiative, tried first in Los Angeles, under which fusion centers will feed "suspicious activity reports" from local agencies into a nationwide database, allowing analysts to hunt for patterns.
More than two-thirds of the U.S. population lives in areas now covered by such reporting, which is designed to take note of behavior that is not illegal but "may be indicative of intelligence gathering or pre-operational planning related to terrorism," Homeland Security Department documents say.
"This isn't TV," said Harvey Eisenberg, the federal prosecutor who runs the Maryland center. "There will be people who slip through the cracks. But are we better equipped to find some of the people we wouldn't have found before? Absolutely."