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More security sharing promised

Ashcroft says local officials will get more, but not all, information on security threats.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 5, 2002

ORLANDO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and some of the nation's top intelligence officials promised Monday to do a better job sharing sensitive security information with local officials such as mayors, emergency workers and cops on the street.

Terrorists plan, rehearse and kill in different places, Ashcroft said, limiting the chances they will be discovered. "It's essential that you have what (information) you need," he told state and local law enforcement officials meeting here.

But, he warned his audience, federal agencies will not throw open all their files. Some secrets will not be shared.

Cooperation will improve, "but that won't be a license to know all that there is to know," he said. "Some information is best kept on a need-to-know basis."

Ashcroft said he heeds his own advice during meetings of the president's National Security Council, sometimes getting up and leaving when matters that do not involve him are discussed.

Monday's meeting at the regional office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was arranged by two influential Florida congressmen after frustrations were expressed by local agencies during national security alerts since Sept. 11.

"People asked, what are we being alerted to? What are preparing for?" said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

Attendees included Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, and a strong showing from the nation's spy agencies: CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden, and Defense Intelligence Agency director Thomas Wilson. Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble flew in from Southeast Asia.

Developments from the meeting included:

Graham, who leads the Senate's Intelligence Committee, said an improved system of government cooperation on security matters will be in place in six months.

The intelligence community's "traditional customers" have included the president, Congress and the military, he said, "but not most of you in the room today. But you are not only legitimate customers, you are critical customers."

In the next few months "there will be tough talk on how information is shared and what is shared," he promised. "We have committed to this dialogue."

It will be easier said than done, however.

"Some cultures in Washington still ask why should we talk to the locals," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., who, with Graham, organized Monday's meeting. Goss, who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said asking some turf-conscious agencies to share sensitive information "is a little like getting the Hatfields together with the McCoys, and telling them to have a nice marriage."

"This is a left-hand, right-hand deal," he said. "We've got to work together. Public safety is our job."

Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller promised to speed the processing of 1,000 or so pending security clearance applications from state and local officials. FBI officials have said the lack of clearances is a major reason some important information has not made it down to local government.

Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood asked them to hurry. Information "has got to flow down to the local level," she pleaded.

Graham said he and Goss have started a joint Senate-House investigation into how well the nation's intelligence agencies were prepared for Sept. 11.

The CIA's counterterrorism office was created in 1985, Graham said, and in hearings this summer the joint committee will explore "how it did in 15 years of combatting terrorism."

An independent investigative staff will conduct the inquiry, he said, and already requests for documents have been made. Hearings, some public, probably will begin in April, according to a Graham aide.

Goss said a national alert system which would rank the anticipated danger is being studied and will be announced soon. A ranking of the threat would help local officials in their planning, he said.

He also said a national debate on the need for increased security and the resulting effect on privacy "is a legitimate one, and it is coming in this country."

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