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Back to Archives | Back to February 2006 Contents 

From the Director

Tactical Information Sharing System

Thomas D. Quinn, Director

n the post-September 11 world, where the possibility of future criminal terrorist at­tacks remains high, the ability to identify criminal terrorist activity while still in the planning stages is vital. Consequently, the ability of law enforcement to detect pre­operational criminal terrorist planning has emerged as a cornerstone of homeland securi­ty. Recent examples of the importance of detecting criminal terrorist preoperational planning include the extensive preoperational surveillance conducted by the hijackers in the months preceding the attacks.1

Recognizing that criminal terrorist activity involves some level of preoperational surveil­lance, federal air marshals are trained, and have extensive experience, in the art of sur­veillance detection-identifying criminal terrorist behavior and their surveillance activ­ities while they are still in the planning stages. This proactive approach targets the criminal terrorist conducting surveillance during the planning stages in which they are most vul­nerable to discovery. A federal air marshal must be prepared to make split-second decisions at 30,000 feet to thwart an attack, but the overriding objective is to keep the threat off the airplane.

The rail and bus bombings in London2 underscore Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's philosophy that "our strength lies in what we can see and what we can access." If the London bombers' preoper­ational surveillance had been detected and accessible to law enforcement, the attacks might have been prevented.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States, the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings,3 the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, and the attacks in Indonesia4 and elsewhere create a mandate for law enforce­ment to enhance methods of detection, infor­mation sharing, and analysis to prevent future acts of violence.

To fulfill this mandate, the Transportation Security Administration's Federal Air Mar­shal Service (FAMS) has developed a compre­hensive system that builds upon advance­ments in information technology and the talents of law enforcement officers trained to identify suspicious activities, potential threats, still in the planning stages, otherwise known as the art of surveillance detection.

Tactical Information Sharing System
The Federal Air Marshal Service Tactical Information Sharing System enables federal air marshals and other law enforcement officers to create and instantly send reports of suspicious activity to the Federal Air Marshal Service Investigations Division for analysis and investigation. The resulting surveillance detection reports (SDRs) are shared in real time with other federal, state, and local law enforcement and intelligence organizations. The key components of this Tactical Informa­tion Sharing System are the following:

  • Surveillance Detector: A federal air marshal or other law enforcement officer who detects and reports the presence of suspicious activity possibly connected to criminal terrorist surveillance

  • Personal Digital Assistant (PDA): The Federal Air Marshal Service's customized handheld electronic wireless device, with integrated SDR reporting software, issued to all federal air marshals for the purpose of submitting surveillance detection reports

  • Surveillance Detection Report: An electronic form that surveillance detectors can use to record information of a suspicious nature and then transmit, using their PDAs, that information to the FAMS Investigations Division's Tactical Information Branch

  • Tactical Information Sharing System (TISS) Database: The Internet-accessible database that stores information from surveillance detection reports, incident and arrest reports, and other sources for immediate retrieval and analysis

  • Tactical Information Sharing System Analytic Tool: A data mining software application that enables analysts to uncover in the TISS database patterns, associations, and other indicators of possible criminal terrorist surveillance that requires further investigation

Surveillance Detection and Tactical Information Sharing System Training
The concept of surveillance detection and information sharing is woven into the fabric of the Federal Air Marshal Service's mission to detect, deter, and defeat hostile acts. Surveil­lance detection is a state of mind that begins when the federal air marshal leaves for work and does not end until he or she returns home.

Federal air marshals receive instruction in surveillance detection and Tactical Information Sharing System concepts throughout the 15­week federal air marshal training program and during periodic training conducted at each of the 21 field offices. Surveillance detection training includes instruction in terrorist methodologies, maintaining domain aware­ness, recognizing criminal terrorist surveil­lance, criminal terrorist behavior recognition, and fraudulent document identification.

Surveillance Detection Reporting and Analysis
Federal air marshals are constantly looking for suspicious behavior that may be early indi­cators of criminal terrorist surveillance activity. A single instance of suspicious behavior viewed in isolation may not be meaningful, but many instances of suspicious behavior viewed collectively can create a comprehen­sive picture. Possibilities become probabilities, when associations emerge across time, distance, and venue. Early indicators may be elements of significant criminal terrorist surveillance activity and planning.

Federal air marshals who observe suspi­cious activity use a customized personal digi­tal assistant loaded with specialized software to capture and send surveillance detection reports to the Investigations Division. Sur­veillance detection reports may also be sub­mitted though the Internet via a secure Tacti­cal Information Sharing System Web site. This real-time collection and timely analysis of a federal air marshal's observations begins the process of connecting dots that may later form a picture of a criminal terrorist plot. Every federal air marshal and many other law enforcement and intelligence organizations have direct access to the Tactical Information Sharing System.

Once a surveillance detection report is recorded in the database, specialized data-mining software helps investigators and tacti­cal information analysts identify associations, trends, and patterns requiring further investi­gation. The ability to link and analyze seem­ingly unrelated activities to develop informa­tion which reveals criminal terrorist planning is at the heart of the Federal Air Marshal Ser­vice Tactical Information Sharing System.

Tactical Information Sharing
Information contained in the Tactical In­formation Sharing System database is unclas­sified and defined as tactical information; this enables real-time information sharing. The Federal Air Marshal Service strategy involves openly sharing tactical information among local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Currently, 22 law enforcement and intelligence organizations have direct access to the Federal Air Marshal Service Tactical In­formation Sharing System.

Applying the Tactical Information Sharing System
The Federal Air Marshal Service Tactical Information Sharing System became fully op­erational in 2002. The following two real-world events serve to illustrate the capability that tactical information sharing offers law enforcement.

Suspicious Behavior: A federal air mar­shal submitted a surveillance detection report on two subjects who were together and be­having suspiciously by asking repeated ques­tions about aviation operations at an airline ticket counter. Unknown to the federal air marshal at the time, both persons were inde­pendently known to federal law enforcement as persons of interest. Federal officers, through their access to the Tactical Informa­tion Sharing System, were able to establish a relationship between the subjects. Sharing in­formation among agencies, and thus linking the subjects, provided vital information used during the ongoing investigation.

Attempted Security Breach: On two sepa­rate occasions, surveillance detection reports were submitted to the Tactical Information Sharing System database involving the same subject who attempted to pass through an air­port security screening checkpoint with a handgun. Since the two attempts occurred at separate airports on separate dates, conven­tional reporting methods failed to link the in­cidents; fortunately, the Federal Air Marshal Service, using the Tactical Information Shar­ing System database, was able to establish a correlation between the incidents.

The Way Ahead
The capabilities of the Federal Air Marshal Service Tactical Information Sharing System continue to expand. One initiative in develop­ment makes use of the camera currently inte­grated into the Federal Air Marshal Service PDA. This approach, known as Tactical Infor­mation Sharing System Image Analysis, in­volves the submission of images in conjunc­tion with surveillance detection reports for the purpose of advanced comparison and analysis. These images may represent per­sons, vehicles, or other items of interest. Tacti­cal Information Sharing System Image Analy­sis will be capable of manipulating partial images to create a full-face or profile image. The Tactical Information Sharing System Image Analysis capabilities are nearing com­pletion and will be operational in 2006.

The TSA Federal Air Marshal Service is working to advance leading edge information sharing technology across local, state, and federal agencies. The Federal Air Marshal Ser­vice is committed to sharing critical informa­tion with our partners in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. By working to­gether to design and implement a sophisticat­ed Tactical Information Sharing System we can make the nation safer from criminal ter­rorist attacks on the homeland. ■

1 The 9-11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Official Government Edition (Washing­ton, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, (July 22, 2004); available at no cost at (
2 MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base, "Incident Profile," July 7, 2005, (, December 23, 2005. The July 7, 2005, London bombings were a series of co­ordinated suicide bombings during the morning work rush hour on three London underground trains and one bus. The bombings killed 52 civilians and injured over 700 people.
3 MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base, "Incident Profile," March 11, 2004, (, December 23, 2005. The March 11, 2004, bombings killed 191 people and in­jured more than 600 when 10 bombs detonated in four different locations on Madrid's railway system.
4 MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base, "Incident Profile,"August 5, 2003, (, December 23, 2005. A sui­cide car bomb detonated in front of a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, killing 13 people and injuring approxi­mately 149 others. The adjoining office block and several cars caught on fire from the explosion. The attack came two days before a verdict in the trial of the Bali nightclub bombers. On October 12, 2002, three explosions rocked the resort island of Bali in Indonesia. More than 421 people were reported missing and it was confirmed that 202 people died in these blasts. See John Lawler, "The Bali Bombing: Australian Law Enforcement Assistance to Indone­sia," The Police Chief 71 (November 2004): 14-21.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 2, February 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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