WASHINGTON — Nine years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators.
The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation's history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
The government's goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States.
A monthslong Washington Post investigation, based on nearly 100 interviews and 1,000 documents, found that the FBI is building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen thought was acting suspiciously.
If the new Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, or SAR, works as intended, the Guardian database someday might hold files forwarded by all police departments across the country in America's continuing search for terrorists within its borders.
The effectiveness of this database depends, in fact, on collecting the identities of people who are not known criminals or terrorists — and on being able to quickly compile in-depth profiles of them.
"If we want to get to the point where we connect the dots, the dots have to be there," said Richard A. McFeely, special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office.
In response to concerns that information in the database could be used improperly or released, FBI officials say anyone with access has been trained in privacy rules and the penalties for breaking them.
But not everyone is convinced. "It opens a door for all kinds of abuses," said Michael German, a former FBI agent who now leads the American Civil Liberties Union's campaign on national security and privacy matters. "How do we know there are enough controls?"
State intelligence analysts and FBI investigators use the reports to determine whether a person is buying fertilizer to make a bomb or to plant tomatoes; whether she is plotting to poison a city's drinking water or studying for a metallurgy test; whether, as happened on a Sunday morning in late September, the man snapping a picture of a ferry in the Newport Beach harbor in Southern California simply liked the way it looked or was plotting to blow it up.
Suspicious Activity Report N03821 says a local law enforcement officer observed "a suspicious subject ... taking photographs of the Orange County Sheriff Department Fire Boat and the Balboa Ferry with a cellular phone camera." The report noted that the subject next made a phone call, walked to his car and returned five minutes later to take more pictures. He was then met by another person, both of whom stood and "observed the boat traffic in the harbor." Next, another adult with two small children joined them, and then they all boarded the ferry and crossed the channel.
All of this information was forwarded to the Los Angeles fusion center for further investigation after the local officer ran information about the vehicle and its owner through several crime databases and found nothing.