September 29, 2013 03:19PM
By Jesse Buchanan
Cardboard boxes left at train stations, a Middle Eastern scarf and vandalism at a dam are some of the concerns in approximately 80 See Something, Say Something reports of suspicious activity gathered by state counter-terrorism officials over the past year.
Officials say the public is more likely to call the state hotline when there’s something out of place due to the campaign’s advertising efforts and ubiquitous slogan.
“People are comfortable doing it now, which is important,” said State Police Major Louis Fusaro Jr., commanding officer of the Emergency Services Unit and Office of Counterterrorism.
Civil rights advocates have concerns about racial profiling by callers to the hotline and how suspicious activity is evaluated. Critics say following up on the tips wastes law enforcement resources and that members of the public without training in counter-terrorism end up calling in unusual, not illegal behavior.
Suspicious activity reports created between July 1, 2012 and July 1, 2013 were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. More than half of the reports are under investigation by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force based in New Haven and were not released.
Of the 34 reports released, nine concerned suspicious persons while 10 concerned suspicious items. Four involved lasers pointed at airplanes.
The See Something, Say Something campaign began in New York’s transit system. Commuters were encouraged to call a hotline if they see unattended bags or suspicious activity.
The slogan and campaign spread to other states in the country. Connecticut’s efforts started three years ago and were funded by a $2.4 million federal grant. Most of the money has gone to advertising efforts that have put the See Something, Say Something slogan on buses, television commercials, billboards and gas station radio stations.
Tip calls or emails are sent to the Connecticut Intelligence Center which coordinates intelligence efforts in the state with other states and the federal government. Tips are vetted and either ignored or sent to local police to investigate. The most credible tips are sent to the FBI.
Since starting the campaign, intelligence efforts in the state have shifted to criminal rather than terrorist activity. Fusaro said the intelligence center’s job is to “connect the dots” on criminal and suspicious activity. In one case a burglary ring was broken up after a pattern was established.
“The genesis was the terrorism stuff post-9/11,” Fusaro said. “The benefit to Connecticut has been that it’s morphed into more than that.”
Suspicious items were reported left behind at train stations, on the New Haven Green, at a school sports field or on top of a utility box. Of those investigated by local police, the items turned out to be empty boxes, food containers, soccer cleats or a forgotten lunch in a plastic bag.
Other calls involved suspicious people. A call in August concerned a “middle eastern male” in a car who was looking at the Millstone nuclear power station for about 10 to 15 minutes. The caller also took a picture of the man and sent the photos to emergency services. The incident isn’t under investigation.
Another call involved a woman acting suspiciously at a gas station.
“The main reason the caller contacted the Homeland Security tips line is because the woman was wearing the same exact scarf as the Boston Marathon bomber wore in the one of the posted photos,” the report said.
In March, a caller reported six school buses on Interstate 95 with no students being driven by “foreigners.” State Police were contacted, but a desk trooper remembered similar incidents and determined the drivers were part of a legitimate company that drives old vehicles to Mexico.
Forty to 50 suspicious activity reports were exempt from the Freedom of Information Act since they are under investigation by the FBI. Details of those cases are not released, according to Devico.
One of those under investigation involves a call to North Haven police about a person’s Facebook page. The poster talks about defecting to North Korea and wishes for a nuclear attack on the United States.
Bruce Schneier, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Sociey, said a campaign isn’t needed to get useful tips from the public. Tips that do come in response to a media campaign won’t be helpful to law enforcement since the public generally can’t distinguish between terrorist behavior and unusual behavior.
“If you put amateurs in the front line of security, you get amateur security,” Schneier said. “Suspicious ends up equaling different.”
The best use of police resources in fighting terrorism probably isn’t investigating the tips solicited from the public, according to Schneier.
While most of the calls received by the hotline turn out to be nothing, Fusaro said the public is valuable in combating terrorism and crime.
“It’s not all terrorism but there have been some successes,” he said.
Using the example of items left at a train station, Fusaro said that commuters who routinely use the transit system know immediately when something is out of place.
“That commuter knows his environment better than anyone,” he said. “We need the public to be our partners.”
Scott Devico, spokesman for the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said it was an aware member of the public who first noticed the attempted Times Square bombing in 2010. A T-shirt vendor saw smoke coming out of a parked car and told a policeman.
That’s the kind of intelligence that the See Something, Say Something is designed to gather and it could save lives, Devico said. There’s no telling what information could thwart terrorist activity until tips are investigated.
David McGuire, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he’s concerned about suspicious activity reports being sent to other agencies. Those reports could include legal behavior that a caller has deemed suspicious.
“We understand the need for programs like this,” McGuire said. “What we worry about is over-reporting and the sharing of data that can endanger civil liberties.”
“We hope that a reasonable suspicion standard is used” before information is shared, he said.
Devico stressed that intelligence center staff members take care to avoid infringing on civil rights.
“This campaign is not about spying on people,” he said.
Suspicious activity reports no longer under investigation must be deleted after 15 months, according to state law. Those working in the intelligence center also receive training on how to protect personal information and are prohibited from profiling or discriminating.
While calls to the hotline could be made with the intent to harass another person, Fusaro said that can happen with any hotline including 911. Each call is vetted to establish credibility before information is passed to other agencies.
“We are very careful to draw the line between individual privacy and public safety,” Fusaro said.
When it comes to security or threats of terrorism, there’s no more joking according to state officials who cited a man arrested last month at Bradley Airport who claimed he had a bomb in his pocket. Unusual behavior could also result in a witness calling the See Something, Say Something hotline.
“If you’re doing something that could be perceived as a threat, people understand that’s something that could be reported to the proper authorities,” Devico said.