Tuesday, July 31, 2007 | 7:15 a.m.
With 18 months of planning and a brief period of controversy behind it, the Southern Nevada Counter- Terrorism Center has quietly opened its doors, ready to take the lead in the local fight against terrorism.
The high-tech operation, jump-started with $4.6 million in federal funds, has joined 42 other "fusion centers" in 37 states charged with improving the gathering and dissemination of anti-terrorism intelligence across jurisdictional lines.
Although it won't be at full strength for several months, the 24,000-square-foot center, located in a nondescript office complex near McCarran International Airport, already is capable of serving as the nerve center for law enforcement in a crisis.
Its opening comes amid a congressional report critical of counterterrorism centers across the country for lacking "true fusion," or cooperation among local and federal law enforcement agencies in analyzing and collecting intelligence.
Fusion centers, the Congressional Research Service said, also have gravitated from pushing strictly counterterrorism goals toward a broader "all-crimes, all hazards" approach focusing on traditional criminals and local emergencies.
The two-story Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center - which eventually will house more than 60 investigators and analysts from Metro Police and other local, state and federal emergency and law enforcement agencies - subscribes to that all-encompassing intelligence-gathering approach.
Contrary to the findings of the congressional report, Metro Homeland Security Lt. Tom Monahan said, it is an approach that officials believe will increase anti-terrorism vigilance in the state.
"By identifying traditional criminal activity and tracing it back to the terrorists, we will be better able to prevent a terrorist attack," said Monahan, who has been working behind the scenes the past 18 months developing the local center. Part of Monahan's work involved visiting other established fusion centers across the country.
Las Vegas officials, Monahan said, have incorporated the best that the other centers have offered into the local operation.
"While we are coming in on the tail end of the national fusion center program, we've been able to listen to the lessons learned from others," he said.
Monahan expects to work the bugs out of the center by October. By then he hopes all of the facility's advanced computers and equipment will be installed, including more than two dozen 46-inch LCD screens, many of which will hang from the ceiling to display crime and intelligence data and keep track of national and worldwide television network reports on terrorism.
The elaborate computer system is set up to track local crime, fire, emergency response and hazard data and look for trends around the clock. At the same time, analysts will pore over terrorism intelligence flowing into the center and look for any connections to the local crime trends.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie, a strong advocate of the fusion center process, said he does not believe Southern Nevada law enforcement authorities will run into the same information-sharing problems with federal agencies here as authorities in other cities have encountered.
"I think we have a very good cooperative spirit here locally," Gillespie said. "That goes back to the way we've been doing law enforcement in the valley for years. We know that because of the fast growth of our town, we've had to pool our resources to be effective."
But more than that, Gillespie said, the FBI and other federal authorities, including the U.S. Homeland Security Department, will have agents and analysts in the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center.
That is not the case in all fusion centers. But when it occurs, the Congressional Research Center found, there is much better cooperation between local and federal authorities.
"They're going to be working side by side and socializing with us," Monahan said. "That kind of close personal interaction fosters trust, and that's the foundation upon which information sharing is based."
Earlier this month local and state officials resolved some trust issues of their own.
Gillespie and other top law enforcement officers put aside differences with Gov. Jim Gibbons over the direction of the state's fusion center process.
Gibbons had been pushing to establish a fusion center in Carson City to serve as the state's primary contact with federal homeland security officials.
But Gillespie and Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley, who is establishing a smaller fusion center in Reno, wanted the Las Vegas operation to be the state's main intelligence-gathering hub. Most of the state's anti-terrorism resources are in Southern Nevada, as are most of the potential targets. To break the impasse, officials drafted a compromise that includes Carson City in the fusion center process, but with a limited role.
Under the plan, Carson City, Reno and Las Vegas will simultaneously share intelligence and threat information from federal homeland security officials. Each operation, however, will have its own responsibilities.
Las Vegas will take the lead in dealing with threats that occur in Southern Nevada. Reno will be at the forefront of Northern Nevada threats. And Carson City will have primary anti-terrorism jurisdiction in the rural counties.
A statewide working group of law enforcement and emergency management officials is set to meet later this week to decide how to distribute the latest round of federal anti-terrorism funding. A large share of the $19 million will go to the three fusion centers.