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Hartford - In a nondescript office tower just west of downtown Hartford, an obscure law enforcement unit of local, state and federal authorities has played important roles in the investigating biggest crimes in the state and country.
The Connecticut Intelligence Center, led by state police officials, helped with the investigations into the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012, the failed plot by a Bridgeport man to blow up a vehicle bomb in Times Square in 2010 and a car chase involving a Stamford woman who tried to ram her vehicle through a White House barrier in October.
The Intelligence Center is among 78 so-called fusion centers nationwide set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to address what federal officials called failures in information sharing by law enforcement. The centers were designed to collect and disperse information on terrorist or criminal activities and to speed the flow of that information from local police to the highest levels of the federal government, and vice versa.
Despite congressional reports during the past two years questioning their effectiveness and concerns by civil liberties groups over the information they collect, Connecticut officials say the fusion centers are vital to the country's efforts to prevent and respond to terrorism and other criminal acts.
"It's one of the many layers of things we expect government and law enforcement to do to protect citizens," said State Police Maj. Louis J. Fusaro Jr., head of the Connecticut Intelligence Center.
The Connecticut center, which opened in 2007, has 14 full-time workers, including officials from state and local police agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Coast Guard, the Connecticut National Guard and Department of Corrections.
It's also home to the state's "If You See Something, Say Something" program, which encourages residents to report suspicious activities.
The center works like this: Local and state police provide information to the Intelligence Center about major crimes as they're occurring and lesser crimes that may be related. The center relays that information to appropriate agencies. It also sends information from federal authorities to local police and distributes weekly bulletins on various topics to local authorities.
When a vehicle with Connecticut license plates was causing a scare in Washington in October, Fusaro led an effort involving the state Motor Vehicles Department to run the license plates and confirm the driver's identity.
"Within a matter of minutes of the incident happening, we were able to give back information that was key to the investigation down there," said Fusaro, who is also commander of emergency services and the Office of Counter Terrorism for state police. "Our job is to validate information, then refer it to the proper agencies for investigation."
Miriam Carey, 34, was killed by police after she tried to drive through a White House barricade, struck a Secret Service agent with her car and led police on a chase to the U.S. Capitol, authorities said. Her 1-year-old daughter was in the car but wasn't hurt.
The fusion center program was criticized in a U.S. Senate report in 2012 and by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, saying it improperly collected information about innocent Americans and produced little valuable intelligence on terrorism. Homeland Security officials and fusion center leaders strongly denied the claims.
Fusaro said fusion centers follow strict rules that protect citizens' privacy.
"We don't collect information on people. We're not spying on anybody," he said. "The intent is to be transparent. Fusion centers are not investigative agencies. We're out there trying to do the right thing and providing timely information on criminal acts and terrorism."