|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Federal, state and local law enforcement officials have set up “fusion centers” for the program in about a dozen cities, including Boston, Chicago and Houston, where reports of suspicious activities made by citizens and the local police are collected and analyzed for disturbing patterns.
Suspicious Activity Reporting begins at the troubling intersection where law enforcement meets intelligence. Its premise is that if potential attacks are to be prevented, and not merely responded to, law enforcement must focus on precursor conduct — surveillance or “casing” of bridges or train stations, for instance — that may not itself be criminal, but may signal a coming attack.
One need only look to the events of the past year — the shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.; the attempted bombing of a jetliner on Christmas Day; the Times Square bombing attempt; the New York subway plot — to see the point. Each of these attacks and attempted attacks was preceded by “precursor conduct,” legally protected actions like chatting on the Internet or purchasing legal chemicals or applying for a visa, that combined with other information might have tipped off law enforcement agents to the intended act of terrorism.
The Suspicious Activity Reporting program recognizes both the necessity for a focus on precursor conduct and the potential for abuse. It strikes a balance by establishing a uniform process for gathering and sharing information. It seeks to avoid racial profiling and other law enforcement excesses by requiring that the reports be based on the evidence of suspicious conduct, not on what the person looks like or where he comes from.
The government consulted with civil liberties groups as it devised the initiative, and they secured changes in the program to assure that the threshold for criminal conduct would not be lowered and that individual privacy would not be violated by the willy-nilly entry of innuendo into a government record. As Michael German, the security policy counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union and a former F.B.I. special agent, put it last year, “The revised guidelines for suspicious activity reporting establish that a reasonable connection to terrorism or other criminal activity is required before law enforcement may collect Americans’ personal information and share it.”