Fusing Intelligence Resources
LAS VEGAS, with its gaming, exotic themed hotels, and massive convention center, attracts 38 million visitors annually. While they dream of hitting the jackpot, authorities worry that terrorists might also see this high-profile American city—where most of the action is packed into a strip of land only 4.2 miles long—as a three-cherry target.
The concern is more than theoretical. In 2003 and 2006, credible information about possible terrorist attacks on Las Vegas was received by law enforcement agencies. At the time, no public-private liaison efforts were in place. Law enforcement devoted hundreds of staff hours to contacting resort properties to request guest registration information covering a 10-day period before New Year’s Eve. Because the agents who contacted resorts had no established ties to the security professionals at the resorts, most refused to supply the information to law enforcement without a warrant or court order. The frustration of both law enforcement and private security led to the realization that trust had to be built and information had to be shared.
The Fusion Center
The Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center, also known as the fusion center, was established in July 2007 and is located on the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s (LVMPD) campus. Like the other 76 fusion centers now up and running across the United States, it is a place where multiple law enforcement agencies collaborate to collect, analyze, and investigate information from many sources, with the goal of detecting and stopping planned terrorist attacks and other criminal activities.
The fusion center includes a 24-hour watch desk that receives information on all manner of crimes and suspicious activities, including robberies, burglaries, and drug crimes, as well as potential terrorist activity. It also receives information on all hazards. The center’s around-the-clock hours are rare for fusion centers, but at the Southern Nevada center a huge wall of monitors is never dim, and the live communication never ceases to flow while a mixture of both sworn and civilian personnel on staff try to connect the dots between reports to discern the bigger picture.
The staff members include crime analysts, intelligence analysts, counterterrorism investigators, and terrorism liaison officers. Participating agencies include the LVMPD, the Henderson Police Department, the North Las Vegas Police Department, the Boulder City Police Department, the Nevada Highway Patrol, the Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments, the FBI, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division, the U.S. Transportation Security Agency, and private contractors such as the Readiness Resource Group and Urban Environmental Resources.
The fusion center’s investigators follow leads and coordinate their work with federal agencies to protect the Las Vegas Valley. They may be following up on perceived suspicious behavior, or they may track a lead to confirm whether a casino guest is on a terrorist watch list, for example.
In August 2009, the fusion center and Las Vegas Security Chiefs Association (LVSCA) had been trying to secure funding for an intelligence analyst position. It was hoped that the money might come from a nongovernmental source because governmental funding sources tend to be unreliable, causing positions to be cut, which then causes a brain drain at fusion centers, not to mention the losses from training issues associated with high employee turnover.
Secondly, it was hoped that a private security professional could fill the position—perhaps one borrowed from the proprietary staffs of a Las Vegas gaming and resort establishment. This would increase the connectivity between the private resorts and the fusion center. With this in mind, the fusion center and the LVSCA approached the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), hoping that it could provide the funds. Then LVSCA would be tapped to recruit for the position.
Security chiefs. The LVSCA was founded in 1987 by the security heads of the resort and casino properties on the Strip. The association has since grown to a membership of more than 7,000 security professionals from 80 hotel, casino, and resort properties throughout the Southern Nevada region.
The association promotes security professionalism through training, communication, and service. For example, last year, it cosponsored the Annual International Tourism Safety Conference, which drew more than 200 security and safety professionals for sessions on protecting the area’s tourism-centric economy. It has also established valuable relationships with local and federal law enforcement agencies, and security representatives from public and private organizations such as the Southern Nevada Tourist Safety Association and the ASIS International Las Vegas Chapter.
Convention authority. The LVCVA markets Southern Nevada as a tourism and convention destination. It also operates the Las Vegas Convention Center and Cashman Center, another large conference venue. The LVCVA is unlike other convention and visitors bureaus in that it is not membership-based. The authority is actually a quasi-governmental agency established by a state law, funded by a county hotel room tax, and governed by an autonomous board of directors consisting of representatives from the private sector and local government officials.
Partnering. When fusion center officials and the LVSCA first approached the LVCVA, some authority board members had reservations about paying for a position that it would not oversee; however, the board eventually agreed that the new position could be used as a marketing tool. “It was obvious to us that tourism needed a seat at the table,” says Ray Suppe, security director for the convention authority and secretary for the LVSCA. “Tourism is the number one industry in Southern Nevada, and we wanted to be seen as a part of keeping the tourists and citizens of Las Vegas safe and secure.”
The convention authority approved $480,285 to fund a counterterrorism intelligence analyst position at the fusion center through August 2012. Although the money comes from the authority, the analyst is an employee of the LVMPD.
Part of the agreement to fund the position was to appoint Suppe as a member of the fusion center’s board of governors, which provides mission and policy direction and includes approximately 14 department-head representatives from local, state, and federal agencies that fund a working analyst or investigator for the fusion center.
The analyst position that the authority funded was ultimately filled by Julia Watson, who was not a security professional, as was originally sought, but who is a former military intelligence analyst, possesses a law degree, and is a university faculty member teaching criminal justice. An important part of her duties is to serve as the liaison between the fusion center and the directors of security for all resorts located within Clark County.
“The interaction of resort security with law enforcement is vital to the protection of our community from targeted attacks,” Watson states. That interaction ensures that the right intelligence is collected and that it is getting back to stakeholders. “This information can be vetted, investigated, and analyzed for patterns and trends that may not be visible when the data is looked at independently,” she says.
Watson attends and frequently speaks at the monthly LVSCA meetings. She also directly interacts, almost daily, with key resort security personnel and staff, serving as a vital communication link between private security and law enforcement personnel. She gives briefings and analysis to key leadership in the public-private partnership. In the last two years, the amount and quality of interagency communication has improved markedly, she states, though she acknowledges that there is always room for improvement in the process.
One area in which the fusion center needs to boost its interaction is with the rest of the private security environment beyond the resorts, and in the author’s opinion, specifically with the members of the ASIS Las Vegas Chapter, which is composed of security professionals from myriad other businesses and institutions. This nonresort security community does not enjoy the close interaction that Watson has with the security chiefs. Her position was funded specifically for the Las Vegas Strip corridor. Perhaps, in the future, it may be possible to secure funding for another position that liaises with the broader security community as effectively as Watson does with the resort properties.
In addition to her liaison duties, Watson is responsible for production of risk assessments for critical infrastructure located within Clark County. She also analyzes and researches the suspicious activity reports (SARs) and other reported incidents; and researches and reviews acts of terrorism directed against the hospitality sector, both within the United States and abroad. In addition, Watson provides assessments on whether counterterrorism tactics employed elsewhere could be successful in Las Vegas.
Resort Command Center
The Resort Command Center was the second initiative. It was developed by MGM Resorts and went into operation New Year’s Eve 2009 at the Bellagio. Each resort property on the Strip sends a security representative to the command center on New Year’s Eve from 7 p.m. to approximately 1:00 a.m. The Resort Command Center also operates during other special events such as the annual Las Vegas Race Weekend—a NASCAR event that takes place in March.
The command center enables the collection of real-time incident information that is then communicated to all the Las Vegas Strip resort properties, the fusion center, and the county emergency command center. During operations, the center monitors local and national news as well as information posted on the County Emergency Operations Center Web site. In the future, the command center will also monitor live CCTV feed from the resorts’ cameras.
Because the position currently filled by Watson has been so successful, the convention authority has renewed its funding for the analyst’s position for an additional three years.
The collaboration and partnership between the fusion center, the security chiefs and convention authority is likely to take on new collaborative projects in the future, keeping Las Vegas one of the safest and most security-conscious tourist destinations in the world.
Tommy J. Burns, M.A., CPP, is a licensed security and policing consultant and a former contractor consultant privacy officer to the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center. Burns previously served as the security director for several hotel-casino properties in the Las Vegas Valley. After 25 years in policing, he retired in 1999 as chief of the Henderson (Nevada) Police Department. Burns is a faculty instructor in Criminal Justice and Security for University of Phoenix. He is the past chair and a current member of the ASIS International Gaming and Wagering Protection Council. He is also a member of the International Association of Professional Security Consultants (IAPSC).