By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – As hundreds gathered Friday in Oak Creek to mourn and pay their respects to the six victims slain Sunday in a Sikh temple massacre, law enforcement officials who track terror are left with a cold reality.
With as much information as state and federal authorities gather and share on domestic terrorism — which is literally more than they can ever review — there isn’t much they can do to prevent massacres such as the one in Oak Creek.
“In what’s known as a lone-wolf-type actor, those are a challenge,” said Leonard Peace, a spokesman for the FBI in Milwaukee. “They may not be prompted by anyone but themselves.
“There may not be a whole lot of things to indicate their intentions without activity or people around them to indicate, ‘Wow, something’s wrong with that individual, I think they may do something someday.’”
Peace said the FBI still was investigating Oak Creek shooter Wade Michael Page’s motive “to ascertain whether it truly is an act of domestic terrorism.”
According to the FBI, in an act of domestic terrorism the perpetrator has political motives for his violence. In a hate crime, the motive is based on race, religion, sexual orientation, among other factors.
In the case of the Sikh slaying, the shooter, a neo-Nazi white supremacist, was on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s watch list since 2000. The center tracks hate groups and “right-wing extremists.
But that doesn’t mean the feds were watching.
“I don’t think we ever turned anything on Wade Page over to anybody,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at SPLC. “He isn’t that unlike many of the people we track.”
Beirich said SPLC tracked “over a thousand people” like Page — members of neo-Nazi organizations, hate music bands and white supremacists. The difference is Page took human lives, while others spew hate on Internet forums or group meetings.
Peace said he couldn’t comment on the SPLC information as part of the ongoing investigation.
Edward Wall is administrator of the state Department of Criminal Investigation, which operates Wisconsin Statewide Information Center – a fusion center that allows local, state and federal authorities to share information related to criminal or terrorist activities.
He said he hadn’t heard of Michael Page until the other day.
“I don’t ever recall hearing his name before the other day when they came out with it,” Wall said.
Page fell under the radar, like James Holmes, the man accused of shooting dead a dozen moviegoers in a Colorado movie theater, or Jared Loughner, who killed six people and critically injured former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona.
Even if Page were in WSIC’s database, it may not have prevented the shooting. Wall said that’s typical of “lone wolf” shooters, who tend to be introverted and not share their plans with others – the opposite of an al-
Qaeda operation, for instance.
It’s also a function of post-9/11 information gathering.
“Moreover, there are serious questions about whether data fusion is an effective means of preventing terrorism in the first place, and whether funding the development of these centers is a wise investment of finite public safety resources,”states a 2007 American Civil Liberties Union report “What’s Wrong with Fusion Centers.”
In 2011, Wall said, WSIC generated 113 Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, for the whole state. A SAR is created by law enforcement officials or citizens reporting something “suspicious” – someone taking photographs of trains or government buildings, for example. Not all leads become SARs.
“It gets pushed over to the FBI for them to review it to see if they want to follow up on it. Then it goes to SAR space,” said Wall.
It works like this: If a SAR is created for license plate ABC 123 in Wisconsin and the same license plate pops up in Michigan, the local fusion center can access that information.
“That’s what fusion centers are supposed to do. They’ve got to have some outstanding issues with them to get written up as SAR,” Wall said.
That’s the intent, but it doesn’t always play out.
ACLU and government watchdogs cite, time and again, cases in which information is gathered and retained on every-day, innocent Americans. Setting aside the issue of domestic spying, does all the information gathered make us safer? civil liberties advocates ask.
A previous investigative report uncovered the sheer volume of data produced related to terrorist activities after 9/11.
“The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work,” begins the Washington Post investigative report “Top Secret in America.”
“Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.”
In Wisconsin, 50 organizations are involved in counter-terrorism and homeland security operations, 19 of which were created after 9/11. Those organizations span from police departments to U.S. Attorney’s offices to Joint Terrorism Task Forces. It seems that post 9/11, every law enforcement agency in some way deals with terrorism.
Wisconsin received a total of $16.3 million in 2010 and 2011 in federal Homeland Security grants. The previous two years totaled $22.4 million.
“You gauge it by how many times do issues occur where we have death and destruction and violence,” Wall said. “If we hadn’t done this, then these many things would have happened. It’s difficult to gauge something like that.”
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