updated 5/25/2004 10:52:16 PM ET 2004-05-26T02:52:16

Cops on the beat in New York and Vermont will be able to instantly check suspects against the U.S. government’s terrorist watch lists under a first-of-its-kind, FBI-coordinated program announced Tuesday.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said the system will give state and local police a way of checking 12 databases maintained by federal agencies, and provide officers with a direct line to federal agents to report suspicious activities.

“We all know that terrorists and their supporters are mobile, networked and operate across jurisdictional boundaries,” Mueller said. “We can defeat these adversaries only if our agencies work together. ... Countering our terrorist enemies requires a seamless flow of intelligence.”

Instead of having to wait hours or days to check information against federal databases, officers should have answers within minutes about whether a suspect has any known links to terrorists, officials said.

New York Gov. George Pataki has been among state and local officials who were critical of the FBI and other federal agencies for what they felt was their unwillingness to share information with local authorities, especially in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Program could widen to other states
If the program succeeds, the FBI can quickly expand it throughout New England and into New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, said James Kallstrom, a former FBI agent who is Pataki’s chief counterterrorism adviser.

Ultimately, Mueller said, the FBI would like a national system of nearly instant access for the 700,000 state and local police officers. But he said current technology and questions about civil liberties make that impossible right now.

Under the pilot program, police officers who suspect someone of terrorist connections while making traffic stops or otherwise encountering someone on the beat could would radio their concerns to an intelligence center outside Albany, manned round-the-clock by Vermont and New York state police officers and FBI personnel.

Multi-agency database access
If the suspects meet certain criteria, their names, license plate numbers, passport numbers or other identifying information would be checked against federal databases for known links to terrorists. The databases are maintained by the FBI, CIA, State Department, Customs and other agencies.

Police officers “need information,” Vermont Gov. James Douglas said. “They need it to be accurate. They need it right away.”

Kallstrom called local police officers the “tripwire” in the war against terrorism, and said their sheer numbers must be enlisted to prevent another terrorist attack.

“The terrorists outnumber us,” Kallstrom said. “We must find ways to better utilize state and local police.”

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