On Sept. 10, 2002, Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward Norris says his detectives went out to arrest a suspect on a routine arson complaint. But that excursion led to much more.
At the suspect's sparsely furnished apartment, Chief Norris's officers found eight other men possessing passports that didn't belong to them from Morocco, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Their computers showed that these men had spent hours at night checking websites like learntofly.com and beapilot.com, which provided information on local airports.
That information was turned over to federal authorities, who took charge of the case.
After that, Norris says, he had no idea what happened with that investigation.
Norris provided this testimony last week before Congress's Joint Inquiry Committee as an example of the lack of cooperation between local and federal authorities. The House and Senate panel is looking into intelligence lapses that occurred prior to the 9/11 attacks, and is exploring overhauls of US intelligence agencies to prevent future lapses.
Norris and many others contend that if the US is going to be effective in disrupting terror cells embedded in US cities, federal authorities must strike up a much better working relationship with local authorities.
"It's been very difficult for locals to get information," says Juliette Kayyem, a specialist on law enforcement and homeland security at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The mentality in these federal terrorism cases is that everyone works for the feds. But that's a short-sighted way to look at these investigations."
She and Norris point out that as recent arrests of suspected cell members in New York, Michigan, and Oregon show these suspects are US residents. And that it is local officers such as the 1,300 policing the neighborhoods of Baltimore who not only will have better access to intelligence on them, but also are responsible for protecting their citizens.
Dr. Kayyem points out that the FBI is already instituting measures to improve this situation. This past April, for example, the FBI created an Office of Law Enforcement Coordination in Washington as part of Director Robert Mueller's reorganization plan.
Mr. Mueller appointed Louis Quijas, former police chief of High Point, N.C., as assistant director of the new department, set up to enhance coordination and communication between the FBI and local authorities. Mr. Quijas says he is working with local law-enforcement authorities to develop an overall strategy.
"Every act of terrorism prior to 9/11, and any from here on out, are local issues," Quijas says in an interview from Minneapolis, where he is attending the International Association of the Chiefs of Police conference.
Speaking louder, over the din of Minnesotans celebrating because their Twins took the crucial Game 4 in the American League baseball playoffs, Quijas agrees that the only way to combat terror is to establish more effective relationships.
He points out that there are 800,000 police officers in this country representing 18,000 police agencies. "There are 27,000 FBI agents scattered across the world," he says. "Only 11,400 of them are agents in the US."
To achieve these more effective relationships, Quijas says, it is incumbent upon the bureau to change course, becoming more collegial in sharing information and the investigations. "From 1906 until 9/11, our primary focus was investigating crimes after the fact," Quijas says. "On 9/12, our basic focus changed to prevention, and that's why it is so important that we have these positive relationships."
Quijas says he's asking police chiefs at this conference, as well as other local authorities, for help in three areas:
To maintain a focus on prevention, continuing to collect and share intelligence.
To step up leadership roles, emphasizing the FBI's need for ideas, suggestions, concerns, and solutions to issues.
To remain patient.
"Many of those people in the room today are change agents, and they know how hard it is to turn a ship around," Quijas says.
Quijas points out other practical steps the FBI is taking. They've increased the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces from 32 to 56 since 9/11. These forces are made up of federal agents and state and local law-enforcement officers who have top-secret clearances and are briefed daily on local cases or issues.
But Norris complains that despite having that top-secret clearance, he still can't get information on ongoing investigations even though he says that information is key to protecting the citizens of his city.
For example, some of the men apprehended on Sept. 10, 2002, have been released, while others are still in custody. Norris does not know more than that.
"This is chillingly, eerily similar to what we encountered years ago," Norris told the committee.
He relayed a tragic story of a case he worked on in 1990, when he was a member of the New York City Police Department.
Norris responded to the scene of the killing of a radical Jewish leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane. An Egyptian male was apprehended.
The suspect Sayyid Nosair had jumped into one cab, then jumped out, obviously confused, Norris said.
Norris and his colleagues visited the suspect's apartment, where they encountered several other males of Middle Eastern descent. Two of them were cabdrivers and just happened to be at the Kahane murder scene. Norris says it was obvious to him that the suspect had jumped into the wrong getaway cab.
But Norris was told by his superiors to focus on only the murder suspect, and that the FBI would take over the conspiracy portion of the investigation.
Norris said he didn't hear another word about that investigation until 1993, when a man drove an explosives-laden van into the World Trade Center. That driver was one of the same taxi drivers Norris encountered in 1990 at the apartment of the man accused of murdering Mr. Kahane. "This bothered me for a long time," he said.
The FBI's Quijas says he can't speak specifically to Norris's complaints, but says these are the very issues he is attempting to resolve.