FBI official laments restrictions on information sharing

Federal agencies such as the FBI want to expand their databases and the information available to state and local law enforcement officials but are hamstrung by laws that Congress should amend, an official said Wednesday.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, state and local officials have criticized the lack of federal information on terrorist threats and the timeliness in providing it. Officials like FBI Director Robert Mueller have said federal agencies are striving to make more information available.

Kathleen McChesney, an executive assistant director for the FBI, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Federal-Local Law Enforcement Committee on Wednesday that the agency is lobbying Congress to extend the reach of databases such as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). One problem, McChesney said, is that each agency has its own databases, and they often are not interconnected. She said another challenge is that certain state privacy statutes dictate what types of information law enforcement can collect or share.

McChesney said NCIC has statutory restrictions on it that require Congress to approve the expansion of information in the database, such as names and descriptions, so local officials can access information on certain terrorist suspects no matter where they are located.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a co-chairman of the committee, expressed frustration at the news, saying that was the first he had heard of such restrictions after federal officials for months have been assuring local officials that more information would be made available.

McChesney said the FBI is working "as fast as we can" on draft legislation to change the NCIC restrictions.

Gary, Ind., Mayor Scott King said two bills currently before Congress could help. The measures, S. 1615 and H.R. 3285, would amend last year's anti-terrorism law and other federal acts to give state and local police access to grand-jury information, information intercepted electronically, by wire or orally, and foreign intelligence information.

McChesney said the FBI also hopes to find a way to ensure that police and other law enforcement officials in rural regions have free Internet access to search databases such as Law Enforcement Online (LEO), a secure, Internet-based system for public safety officials. She said the FBI hopes to expand the use of LEO as well.

The FBI also has developed a Web-based terrorism database for law enforcement personnel in Utah, Idaho, Montana and Washington to share information in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 8 in Salt Lake City.

The initiative is part of the Regional Information Sharing System, a secure network servicing various regions of the country. Attorney General John Ashcroft late last year directed attorneys to increase the use of such systems.

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