FOX19 Investigates: Secretive counter-terrorism agency in the Tri-State

FOX19 Investigates: Secretive counter-terrorism agency in the Tri-State

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - It's the Tri-State agency few people know exists whose mission reads out of John le Carré or "24." The Fusion Center identifies potential terrorist targets and forges the plans to thwart or deal with the aftermath of such plots.

In a nondescript hilltop office building just outside downtown Cincinnati, agents gather intelligence on potential home-grown domestic terrorists and those who might come here from abroad. They work with agencies like the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigations to identify hard targets like the area's chemical plants, corporate headquarters, airports and rail yard. They have access to a large situation room they share with local police, as well as a secure room the Department of Homeland Security built to hold classified briefings with the Central Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency.

Federal agents work with local police in an effort funded by Homeland Security grants and state and local dollars. They share resources to plan counter-terrorism measures not only for hard targets but also for any large event where many people might gather. If you've been to a Reds or Bengals game, Oktoberfest, Taste of Cincinnati or Riverfest, you've run across the work of the Fusion Center, formally called the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Regional Terrorism Early Warning Group, Ohio.

The center's original director, former Cincinnati police chief Michael Snowden, says "It's all behind the scenes. The idea is the public doesn't know we're here."

Origins born of 9/11 adapt to modern threats

Snowden helped launch the center in 2005, leveraging federal grants after 9/11. $71 million in Homeland Security grants helped build and equip the center, most of those in the early years. These days, most of the funding to run the place comes from local and state coffers.

Snowden says "the goal was to identify what critical infrastructures we had, facilities as well as events" that terrorists might target.

Those events include Sunday's Flying Pig Marathon. Months before 35,000 runners converged on the route, agents considered every mile in a threat assessment of possible spots terrorists might attempt to hit. They developed a security plan for emergency response as well as potential evacuations for runners and spectators. Then during the race, the Fusion Center activated the situation room the agency shares with local police agencies, a warehouse-sized space with computer workstations surrounded by large video monitors.

The center's current director, Mike Hartzler, took Fox19 Investigates on a tour of the office upstairs from the situation room. Agents in cubicles that look like any other business space conduct top secret work. Some research local, homegrown criminals and potential terrorists, developing intelligence on sovereign citizen groups and motorcycle gangs for example. Others coordinate with the 77 other Fusion Centers across the country to research local elements of national and international activity agents find to be suspicious.

Hartzler says there are limitations on what the Center can do. Agents can only surveil and investigate individuals or groups on a federal terrorism watch list.

He says that's why they did not know ahead of time when nine Greenpeace protesters penetrated security in March at Procter & Gamble's corporate towers downtown. The protestors hung banners decrying the company's use of palm oil, which the group blames for rainforest destruction. Some individuals had posted comments on social media sites prior to the protest, but the Fusion Center didn't intercept those plans in advance.

Hartzler says "The difference with Greenpeace is they're exercising constitutional rights. They committed a crime while doing that but they're not considered domestic terrorists." Hartzler says agents for the Fusion Center did investigate on the scene as protestors were arrested to learn from what they exposed. "They actually pointed out some security vulnerabilities that can be fixed now," he says.

Criticism targets effectiveness and civil liberties

It's a lesson that can be applied to other corporate headquarters not only in the Tri-State but across the nation. Fusion Centers share information in a national security network that's come under criticism. Two Congressional committees have investigated the centers. In 2012, the Coburn Report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found the center's work "often wasted money and stepped on Americans' civil liberties." A second "King Report" out of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security in 2013 found "the Network is not functioning as cohesively as it should be and fusion centers are facing numerous challenges that prevent the Network from realizing its full potential to help secure the homeland."

The nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice at New York University issued its own report after visiting 32 fusion centers including the one in Cincinnati. It found inconsistent information sharing, gathering "useless" information which now travels widely on federal networks, and poor oversight of the system, that "may jeopardize civil liberties."

Hartzler says the center's work is hard to measure by statistics and strives to provide security to citizens in a free society. "This is a wonderful country and a wonderful place to live," he says, "but that's why we're necessary… We live in a free nation and so we are protected by civil rights but on the other hand we also have to use this system" to face, counter and thwart "an adaptive enemy."

Hartzler would not allow Fox19 Investigates in some areas behind locked doors but did allow us to watch and listen as workers for the county emergency management system assessed a chemical plant in Norwood. They looked at how far a possible plume would travel should the plant be hit not only by terrorism but also in case of severe weather.

That's the greatest contribution Snowden and Hartzler say has resulted from the Fusion Center: an ability for local agencies to coordinate plans for disasters in a way they did not do so before, fusing previously individual efforts to reduce the region's vulnerability in an ever-changing world.

Additional links: 

Congressional reports:

The Brennan Center report:

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