In a Woodlawn office park, police can collect and analyze tips that can help find an al-Qaeda cell or a Bloods gang member.

Investigators there — representing more than two dozen law enforcement agencies across the state — have access to a wealth of information from their colleagues around the country and the federal government. So when a beat cop from Baltimore needs information on a drug dealer from Los Angeles, the answer can come almost instantaneously.

The investigators in such offices in Maryland and around the country are supposed to be focused on identifying terrorists and potential risks. But law enforcement agencies are taking advantage of the information to fight domestic crime as well, with quick access to federal databases that were once off-limits to local jurisdictions.

Experts in terrorism — who call the "Fusion Centers" one of the best additions to the post-Sept. 11 security net — now worry that the mission to fight terrorists is being diluted. And civil libertarians have criticized the centers, saying they're used to gather intelligence on harmless protesters and peaceful movements.

"If those in charge of the fusion centers go about their mission from the standpoint of gathering intelligence and not purely a law enforcement mindset, they can be effective," said William H. Parrish, a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps who oversaw a 4,000-member anti-terrorism security team.

He said he's been in centers where officers merely pass along government warnings — such as an alert to possible attacks on passenger trains — to local authorities. But they were designed to do more.

"The job of the Fusion Center is to analyze that information and determine how it applies to them, and figure out if it applies to them," Parrish said.

Gov. Martin O'Malley took exception to the experts who fear that using the centers to target domestic crime weakens the counter-terrorism mission.

"If the Fusion Centers can't help us connect the dots that allow us to do a better job of fighting the Crips and the Bloods, then we have no hope of connecting the dots that allows us to identify sleeper cells from al-Qaeda," he said.

Police say they can just as easily use surveillance cameras, which are plentiful in many Baltimore neighborhoods, to watch for terrorists or trouble-makers. O'Malley said the dual use of cameras and other equipment helps justify the cost, both in money and in manpower.

"The disciplines required to identify criminal networks are many of the same disciplines required to identify terrorist networks," the governor said.

Other post-9/11 improvements have proved to have a secondary benefit as well.

For example, after the attacks, all nursing homes in the state were required to have backup generators. During Hurricane Irene, O'Malley said, no patients had to be evacuated from any nursing home in Maryland.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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