Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative
Investigation into the events leading up to 9/11 showed several instances of lost opportunities due to lack of information-sharing outside of specific agencies or communities of interest. The 9/11 Commission referred to this as “the human or systemic resistance to sharing information” and recognized that federal, state, local, and tribal governments have access to information which could help identify precursor activities of terrorist attacks.1 The challenge has been to make the necessary information available to those who need it, particularly front-line officers and first responders, in time to protect our people and institutions.
On October 31, 2007, the President issued the first National Strategy for Information Sharing to prioritize and unify our nation's efforts to advance the sharing of terrorism- related information among federal, state, local, and tribal governments, the private sector, and foreign partners. The strategy calls for the Federal Government to support the development of a nationwide capacity for gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing, and sharing terrorism-related suspicious activity reports (SARs) generated at the local, regional, state, or federal levels, and in a manner that rigorously protects the privacy and civil liberties of Americans.
While suspicious activities have been documented by law enforcement agencies for years, this effort seeks to standardize SAR processes by leveraging community oriented and intelligence-led policing strategies, leading to more proactive policing strategies to prevent terrorism-related crime. To achieve this goal, state, local, tribal, and federal partners, along with several national law enforcement organizations, have collaborated to develop the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI).
Over the past 2 years, the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE), in conjunction with a number of partner organizations, conducted a suspicious activity reporting evaluation environment (EE) at state and major urban area fusion centers across the country. The purpose was to test and evaluate policies, procedures, and technology concepts needed to implement a unified process for the gathering, documenting, processing, analyzing, and sharing of SARs that are reasonably indicative of potential intelligence gathering or pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity.
As a part of this effort, the International Association of Chiefs of Police created a front- line officer training. One of the purposes of the front-line officer training is to help officers distinguish between behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity and that of people who are engaged in constitutionally protected activities. In addition, the training also discusses the SAR documentation process and how the SAR will be sent to the fusion center where a trained analyst will review and vet the report for potential terrorism connections.
Training for supervising officers, investigators, and analysts were also developed and provided by the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association to ensure that everyone involved in the multiple levels of review are appropriately trained on legal collection thresholds and other privacy protections. These trainings, combined with local initiatives already in place, provided a broader support network for the EE sites.
The NSI process has already proven successful in the evaluation environment sites. In Los Angeles, the LAPD has input more than 1,900 terrorism-related SARs to the shared space, 126 of which have been referred to FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. There have also been more than 40 arrests in Los Angeles as a direct result of SARs filed by front-line officers. The FBI’s eGuardian system currently has more than 1,500 SARs, 66 of which have shown a probable nexus to terrorism.
While the NSI process has been successful at identifying behaviors related to terrorism, most participants in the ISE-SAR Evaluation Environment have found that the process can also be leveraged to meet the all-crimes mandate of their departments. For example, while investigating a suspect on weapons violation, LAPD discovered that the suspect was attempting to broker weapons sales abroad to a known terrorist organization. LAPD worked with the FBI to build a case against the suspect and made an arrest.
The ISE-SAR EE concluded on September 30, 2009, and a final report documenting “Lessons-Learned” and “Best Practices” is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. The plan for the NSI is to transition it from a pre-operational environment to a broader nationwide implementation. As part of the nationwide effort, the responsibility for coordinating the initiative will transition from the PM-ISE to a national Program Management Office (PMO) that will be established and managed by a federal agency as yet to be determined. Although the PMO will be housed in a single host agency, the vision is for it to be an interagency, intergovernmental organization representing the needs of all NSI participants. Consequently, PMO staff will be provided by federal, state, local, and tribal stakeholders participating in the NSI. While the PMO is being established, planning for the nationwide implementation of NSI will continue. For more information regarding NSI, please contact PM-ISE at 202-331-2490 or visit www.ise.gov.
- 1Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, July 2004: 416-419.