A Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement task force, one of 66 around the nation, spends much of its days tracking down what turn out to be false leads on terrorism. The Los Angeles Times reports that coming into the command center in recent weeks have been tips about a Middle Eastern man sketching a picture of the Fairfax County jail in northern Virginia, and a tenant whose apartment is furnished with a mattress and a telescope squarely aimed at one of the monuments. Lately, there have been 15 to 20 alleged sightings each day of a Saudi who recently made the FBI’s “Be on the Lookout” list; one caller thinks the suspect is his barber.
Virtually none of the leads pan out. But they are all meticulously run down. The Joint Terrorism Task Force puts representatives from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the same office with orders to share intelligence and cooperate. It sounds easy, though historically, local police departments and their federal peers have not been the best of friends, the Times says.
Even when the squads don’t make arrests, the new cooperation goes a long way toward quickly investigating potential threats.
How much terrorism all this effort prevents is unclear. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has said that more than 100 terrorist plots worldwide have been foiled since Sept. 11. But that includes cases principally handled by agents overseas and their foreign counterparts, where the task forces played little or no role.
The cost of such programs can be enormous, the Times notes. In an era of tight budgets, dispatching a law enforcement veteran to work on a task force means that something else important isn’t getting done. The Washington task force gets a steady stream of phone calls every day.
Arrayed in a war room are desks for the Secret Service, the criminal investigative units of the Navy and Air Force, and the State Department diplomatic security service, to name a few.
They check out tips and feed leads to other investigators, including separate FBI squads that investigate state-sponsored terrorism or to local cops tracking run-of-the-mill street crime.