Sleek snoop center still leans on human factor

High-tech eye candy, yes. But law enforcement intelligence center still relies on human communications. Photos: Inside JRIC

Joris Evers
Joris Evers Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Joris Evers covers security.
5 min read
NORWALK, Calif.--A new law enforcement center--quite possibly the best real-world likeness of the fictitious high-tech "Counter Terrorist Unit" in the popular show "24"--relies on a surprisingly low-tech feature: low cubicle walls.

Located in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk, the first-of-its-kind Joint Regional Intelligence Center joins federal, state and local law enforcement in one facility as part of a post-9/11 effort to improve law enforcement collaboration. Analysts and investigators at the center handle intelligence from the various agencies on potential threats to national security, in particular terrorism, and correlate the data.


"We are connecting the dots," Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said on Friday after touring the recently opened center.

The facility--housed in a nondescript office building in suburbia, near fast-food restaurants and bland government offices--is equipped with some $2 million worth of technology, including numerous projectors that display onto walls maps, information on terrorists, and other data from public and nonpublic sources.

Yet despite all the high-tech eye candy, JRIC relies on people for data-sharing.

"Technology enables us to analyze a lot of information quickly and get access quickly," Chertoff said. "But the human element is important here."

JRIC is the first of 38 such centers meant to prevent potentially valuable intelligence from going unnoticed, Chertoff said. Intelligence agencies have worked together in the past, but not at this scale, JRIC participants said.

At JRIC, pronounced "jay-rick," data such as tips and field reports from a multitude of agencies is analyzed to identify patterns and trends. Agencies that are part of JRIC include the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Sherriff's Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Recently, JRIC staffers worked long hours after a suspected terror plot to blow up transatlantic airliners was unraveled. The center operated extended hours, from 5 a.m. Pacific until midnight, some JRIC employees said. It will become a 24/7 operation in the future.

Currently some 30 analysts and investigators are in place at JRIC. Eventually, the center will house around 60 people from about 15 agencies.

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Video: Behind the scenes at JRIC
CNET News.com's Joris Evers gets inside the first Joint Regional Intelligence Center, whose workforce is drawn from the FBI, Homeland Security and regional agencies.

"For law enforcement this is cutting-edge," Stanley Salas, a section chief at JRIC and a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, said in an interview. "We're cops, we're used to arresting people, not building places like this."

Individuals at the center represent their own agencies and are tapped into their own data sources. There is no universal access to multiple data sources. People have to make the information-sharing happen, so everyone is put together in an open bullpen instead of cloistered cubicles.

There is a vision for JRIC to unify all data from the various agencies in a single database and offer broad access to personnel, but that doesn't exist today. That's not because of technical limitations, but because of red tape and access restrictions, said Mario Cruz, technology director at JRIC.

"Today we do not have a logical connection (between different agency databases); right now it is the people," he said.

The various agencies involved need to agree on protocols for sharing their data, and that may take a while. "We always have the tech answers and solutions in place before the actual agreements have been hammered out," Cruz said.

As a result, Gregory Hisel, a battalion chief for the Los Angeles County Fire Department stationed at JRIC, has access to his department's dispatch system, but others at JRIC don't. "Technology has not eliminated the need for physical contact," he said. "It is more important that we've come together under one roof."

As another example, the FBI has access to its classified network of information at JRIC, but only in a separate room off the main floor that requires special clearance. "Kiefer Sutherland runs through here all the time," joked one JRIC analyst, referring to the actor who plays agent Jack Bauer on "24."

The "multimedia boards" that display on walls crucial information are also used to present and share information, Hisel said. "We use them on a daily basis," he said.

A collection of flat-panel TVs hanging from the ceiling shows news channels, including the Arab network Aljazeera. Each workstation has a high-end Windows PC, two flat-panel screens and a voice over Internet Protocol phone. A terabyte of storage capacity is available for intelligence data.

New systems should make the gathering of intelligence, analysis and case management easier. One of those was designed by Memex, a company Cruz worked for prior to joining JRIC. Memex has also helped Scotland Yard in England and sells tools for intelligence management and analysis.

The network has multiple layers of security and also utilizes encryption, Cruz said. The building has backup power to keep it up and running should there be a power failure. A backup facility that mirrors JRIC has been set up at the Los Angeles Police Department, should the entire building go down, Salas said.

Chertoff made a quick pitch for more intelligence analysts, especially those with language skills.

To fuel cooperation between the different agencies, representatives at JRIC might be managed by somebody from another agency. For example, a Los Angeles Police Department staffer could report to an FBI agent, a JRIC representative said.

JRIC aims to prevent terrorist strikes and combat crime in a 44,000-square mile territory surrounding Los Angeles, a region that spans seven counties and encompasses 18 million people. Some potential high-profile terror targets in the area include Los Angeles International Airport and the Long Beach port.

"This area is a very significant target of opportunity for terrorists," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also visited the JRIC on Friday.

Besides the goal of improved intelligence analysis, the facility is meant to help eliminate duplication in effort and speed information flow.

It all comes down to old-fashioned police work, Salas said. "Technology is fun, but we could do this on index cards, if we had to do it and had the right information."