Col. David Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, is sitting at the end of a big conference table at police headquarters near Baltimore. Mitchell, a lawyer and thirty-one-year veteran of Maryland law enforcement, is talking about how terrorism has added a new mission for his officers since September 11. “After 9/11 we found out how many things we needed to know,” says Mitchell, beefy and bespectacled under a full head of gray hair. “How many and where is every mosque in the state of Maryland? And every synagogue. And every airport and every runway. And every cropduster.”
Within weeks of the attacks, says Mitchell, his organization expanded its intelligence unit, putting it on round-the-clock duty. The state police strengthened its already close relations with the FBI’s Baltimore field office, and brought in a retired bureau terrorism expert to head its antiterrorism squad. The police also established the Maryland Intelligence Network to improve the flow of information between the FBI and county police departments across the state. The intelligence unit, which already had five officers with top-secret national security clearances, is being reinforced with other cleared officers, and Mitchell himself is in the process of receiving clearance to handle classified information from the FBI and the CIA.
What’s happening in Maryland–based on interviews with the FBI in Baltimore, federal officials and state and local police officials nationwide–is a microcosm of a national trend. From New York to Chicago, from Florida to California, police departments are creating, rebuilding or strengthening intelligence units and antiterrorism squads. It’s a trend that began slowly in the 1990s, after the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing, but it has accelerated sharply–with major pushes from the FBI and the Justice Department–since September. Some of the momentum is coming from police departments, responding to the new threat of terrorism and taking the opportunity to expand their powers. And some of it is coming from the Feds, in an effort to create “a seamless web” (in the words of Attorney General John Ashcroft) uniting local law enforcement, the FBI and the US intelligence community. A little-noticed provision of the USA Patriot Act, which passed Congress last fall, requires the FBI and CIA to train state and local police to handle national security information.
Ironically, all this is occurring in the complete absence of any actual terrorist activity. In Maryland, FBI and police officials could not identify even one recorded incident of terrorism in the state. And the same is true elsewhere. Chicago, for instance, which is in the process of substantially relaxing restrictions on police surveillance activity, has experienced zero incidents of terrorism since the 1970s, when Puerto Rican independence activists set off a bomb in the city. And, according to both Chicago Police Department and FBI officials, not a single incident of terrorism has been prevented, either. “We’ve arrested people on anthrax hoaxes and bomb scares,” says Pat Camden, spokesman for the CPD. But incidents? Zilch.
Still, since September 11 the Maryland State Police are spending more and more time preparing to track potential terrorists, from international, Al Qaeda-style suspects to a wide range of home-grown groups that, they believe, might be prone to violence. With expanded powers–in March, Mitchell led the charge when the Maryland state legislature passed antiterrorism measures that mimicked the expanded wiretap and surveillance provisions of the USA Patriot Act–the police are building files on potential terrorist organizations, both in-state and across the country. “We read their literature, we interview people who’ve attended their rallies,” Mitchell says. “A lot of stuff we collect, it’s off the Internet.” And, he says, when the potential for violence suggests that it’s necessary, the police infiltrate organizations and develop informants inside them. When I interviewed him, it was only days before a major protest against the International Monetary Fund in nearby Washington. “I’ll have troops down there,” Mitchell said. “We know there’s a history of groups that are hell-bent on violence, and we’ve got some intelligence activity going on there, too. We’re keeping our ear to the ground.”