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September 16, 2019

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Fusion center’s attention on prevention

Example: Suspicion raised by photo-taking at casino

Updated Friday, May 22, 2009 | 4:24 p.m.

Taking photos on the Strip is about as common as placing bets.

Thousands of tourists go unnoticed every day capturing their favorite Las Vegas attractions on film.

One early morning in late February, however, three men were spotted taking unusual photos at a major Strip casino.

Their cameras were aimed at the casino’s ceiling, its structural beams and its elevators. Casino security officers found the behavior suspicious.

The trio appeared to be doing the kind of photographic surveillance terrorists might do before they strike a target, the officers concluded.

So they contacted the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center.

The center is run by Metro Police and houses investigators and analysts from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Southern Nevada.

It has an “all-crimes, all-hazards” mission, which allows it to also keep tabs on traditional crime, health hazards and local emergencies.

But the main aim of the “fusion” center is to protect Southern Nevadans from terrorism, for which the case of the suspicious photo trio provided a real-life test.

Lt. Kevin McMahill, of Metro’s counterterrorism team, and his colleagues at the center were called upon to assess the potential threat of the photographers, and after a review of the casino’s surveillance videos, the center issued one of its rare law enforcement bulletins asking other casinos along the Strip to provide information on the men and to report any similar activity.

The bulletin included photos of the trio taken from the surveillance tapes.

“A review of the security video clearly shows the three are not taking typical tourist photographs,” the bulletin says.

According to McMahill, the men were in and out of the casino in roughly 10 minutes. One was pointing to various parts of the casino and directing the other two to take the photos.

Later, all three men were seen walking up and down the Strip with their cameras.

Some three months later, however, anti-terrorism authorities have yet to identify the trio or determine whether their actions were connected to any kind of threat.

McMahill says it’s not over until it’s over, and if not for the fusion center, the investigation would not be as far along as it is.

“We compare intelligence coming to us every day with the information we have on these guys,” McMahill says. “Intelligence-sharing is a very slow process. We may very well end up identifying these guys, but it may take a while.”

The center, which opened in October 2007 with the help of $4.6 million in federal funding and costs an estimated $1 million a year to operate, was supposed to be a way to speed up the sharing of information among various law enforcement agencies.

The center’s leadership says it has done that. In other words, while intelligence-sharing may still be a slow process, it is not as slow as it once was.

In this case, for example, the FBI, which has an agent and an analyst stationed at the center, has lent much-needed national intelligence help in the effort to identify the three suspicious photographers, McMahill says.

The ongoing investigation has been -- and continues to be -- a valuable exercise, say McMahill and Metro Lt. Tom Monahan, the center’s director.

“To be able to prevent an attack, we need to begin to identify the preoperational phase, which includes suspicious photography and preoperational planning,” Monahan says.

With the resources of the center, authorities have, indeed, “begun” to do that.

But authorities can’t move this case into the success column on the homeland security front until they identify the three men from three months ago and determine whether they were tourists or terrorists.

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