- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

BALTIMORE — When three Baltimore County police officers saw someone aiming a camera from a sport utility vehicle on the Bay Bridge and decided the videotaping looked suspicious, Maryland’s intelligence center was notified within minutes.

The state’s counterterrorism center has local, state and federal authorities sitting next to each other 24 hours a day at an FBI building in Calverton in Prince George’s County. That was why police were able to quickly arrest Ismael Selim Elbarasse, a man wanted for questioning in Chicago about the finances of the Hamas extremist group, state officials said.

“It’s a true partnership,” said Jim Ports, assistant secretary of the state Department of Transportation and a member of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s homeland security team, which develops state policies on the issue. “And that’s what’s making it work.”

Marylanders may know the center best from the enormous electronic signs above state highways that advertise its hot line — 800/492-TIPS — and ask people to report suspicious activity. Those calls are directed to the unit, officially called the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center.

The Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council of Maryland, a group chaired by Assistant U.S. Attorney Harvey Eisenberg, opened the center in November.

Federal homeland security officials, members of state departments and local police officers all have a role in the center’s operation. Federal, state and local departments assign officers to take calls from law-enforcement agencies and members of the public from across the state.

“By having shoulder-to-shoulder workers with us, we’re able to turn to our counterpart state or local agency and share our information,” said Barry Maddox, a spokesman for the FBI’s Baltimore field office.

The center’s staff do not conduct separate investigations, but share information and analysis, the center’s charter says. The center developed an encrypted Web site to exchange data among members and to receive and share information with agencies outside Maryland.

“Anything that we have on the federal side is immediately accessible to the folks taking calls,” Mr. Maddox said.

Authorities credit the center’s information-sharing policies and methods with getting information rapidly to officers from the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, who learned within minutes on Aug. 20 that a material witness warrant had been issued earlier the same day for Mr. Elbarasse in Chicago.

A search warrant later revealed that federal authorities suspected Mr. Elbarasse of having financial ties to the Palestinian group Hamas and might provide the Bay Bridge footage as “reconnaissance and surveillance to a foreign terrorist organization.”

“You can see we’re doing a better job of disseminating that information and getting it out,” Mr. Ports said.

But as authorities promote the tip line and ask for help from the public, Mr. Ports said, they want to strike a fine balance between alerting and alarming the public.

“We need people to be our eyes and ears,” he said. “You want people to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings, but we don’t want people to be fearful.”

Funding for the counterterrorism center is a collaborative effort as well. Federal homeland security dollars pay for part of the operation, but local law-enforcement agencies cover the salaries of officers they assign there. Also, an FBI grant paid for some of the equipment and infrastructure.

About 18 people staff the center in a 24-hour period. A Baltimore County Police Department captain was appointed the center’s director, a lieutenant from the Maryland State Police as an assistant director, and an FBI special agent as an assistant director for strategic terrorism analysis.

Howard County provides one officer to help staff the center, and all officers in the county have completed training to use its resources, said David Proulx, a spokesman for the police department.

“The joint operations are extremely important to us among all the jurisdictions,” Mr. Proulx said. “It’s a collaboration and it’s providing our officers with a very useful resource.”

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