FBI official hopes intelligence center answer to sophisticated criminals

Ellen Knowlton shrugs and admits, "The bad guys don't necessarily carve things up the way we do."

That's the challenge in a new world riddled with criminal hybrids, nontraditional organized crime factions and situational terrorists. Crime has gone global, and the stakes are high.

That's also a key motivation behind the creation of the Nevada Regional Intelligence Center, says Knowlton, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Las Vegas office. Based in Las Vegas, the center is one of a dozen in the nationwide pilot program funded by Congress earlier this year.

In an age that finds terrorists slamming credit cards and financing drug deals to generate the funds necessary to carry out their twisted revolutions, and loose-knit criminal conspirators who don't quite fit law enforcement's traditional mob models, competent and comprehensive intelligence gathering and especially timely retrieval are more important than ever.

With the FBI acting as an umbrella agency, Knowlton has assigned a squad of agents and analysts to oversee the office. The message sent is clear: This isn't Mr. Hoover's bureau; local and regional law enforcement participation is encouraged. The Nevada office, for example, has links with Las Vegas police, the Nevada Division of Investigation and the Department of Public Safety. The Drug Enforcement Administration is another possible participant in the program.

Whether local and state investigators trust that the information will flow both ways remains to be seen. Police officials were irritated by an apparent lack of cooperation and information sharing in a recent federal trial in Detroit that featured terrorism suspects with at least superficial ties to Las Vegas. The uproar that followed led to an apology from top FBI officials to Sheriff Bill Young.

Past miscommunication only makes Knowlton more determined to make the regional approach work. She makes it clear all other law enforcement agencies are welcome to contribute to the center and make use of its clearing house of resources. (To further this goal, FBI Special Agent Daron Borst, the office's media liaison, is moving over to the regional intelligence group. Special Agent Todd Palmer will be the office's new media coordinator.)

Given the secretive nature of intelligence gathering, it's understandable that independent agencies, the FBI not least, would keep the information collected confidential. It's also common to find squads within the same organization competing for information -- and occasionally hoarding material.

The regional center approach is an attempt to break that cycle -- and a broad range of criminal acts qualify. Terrorism, drug trafficking, foreign counterintelligence, organized crime, public corruption and even health care fraud are suited for the regional approach.

"I believe in intelligence, not just the shaping of it, but making a product out of it," Knowlton says. "We won't just give them raw data. We'll be giving them a finished product."

While civil libertarians and others skeptical of federal law enforcement will sniff at yet another plan to coordinate domestic intelligence gathering in the name of crime fighting, Knowlton notes that there are numerous areas that cry out for improved investigative techniques and resources.

The center's concept is simple: Information is gathered, analyzed and placed into a data bank for retrieval. Investigators seeking information on anything from al-Qaida to outlaw motorcycle clubs can access the center. A one-horse sheriff's office will be able to collect information, on a need-to-know basis, giving understaffed departments access to a world of contacts and connections.

At least in theory, the regional center approach also will prevent multistate criminal organizations from operating off law enforcement's radar screen.

The concept isn't new. It's existed in various incarnations for years. After 22 years with the bureau, Knowlton sees it as the smartest way to deal with the mountain of intelligence data.

"The volume of information is staggering," she says.

But she knows the stakes are higher than ever.

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John L. Smith's column appears on Friday. E-mail him at Smith@lvrj.com or call him at 383-0295.


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