Top officials at the state’s homeland security office are unsure how a hotly contested plan to curb terrorism in Tennessee will affect the agency’s operations.
Under the plan, top state officials would have the power to brand people suspected of dabbling in terrorist-like activities as “terrorist entities” once the Office of Homeland Security and Department of Safety make that recommendation.
“I don’t fully understand the process that would be used for us to designate the person,” said Rick Shipkowski, the deputy director of the state’s homeland security office.
The official designation would come from a mutual decision between the governor and the attorney general. However, they would not be allowed to label anyone a “terrorist entity” without the blessing of both agencies. Neither department has taken a position on the bill.
The proposal has drawn a lot of attention on Capitol Hill. The plan was originally meant to target people practicing Sharia, a fundamental component of Islamic Code. Since then, lawmakers have revamped HB1353 to include anyone suspected of terrorism.
Anyone caught knowingly helping a possible terrorist — financially, legally, materially — would be charged with at least a Class B felony.
Sen. Bill Kentron, a key sponsor of the legislation, said he hasn’t spoken to the department about the effect his plan would have on the various agencies.
Right now, twenty percent of tips and reports about possible terrorist activity the state receives are unfounded and thrown out, Shipkowski said.
“I actually had someone tell me one time that a convenience store owner was suspicious because he was Middle Eastern and he smiled all the time. Well, you know, that’s not a crime in Tennessee, it’s good for business,” Shipkowski said.
Information the state receives is shared with the Tennessee Fusion Center, a facility jointly operated by the state Office of Homeland Security and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation with analysts from the departments of correction, probation and parole and military. The FBI and the US. Office of Homeland Security also play a role and create a total staff of 38 people at the Center.
The remaining 80 percent of cases are handed over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and are further explored there. Shipkowski declined to release the actual number of cases the office takes on, but said “very few” of those reports of possible terrorist activity ever prove legitimate.
Attempts to reach a spokesman with the FBI were unsuccessful Friday.
Shipkwoski said he doesn’t know exactly how or when his department would recommend the state label someone a terrorist given that the FBI traditionally does the heavy lifting in determining who fits the bill.
Here are excerpts from our interview with Shipkowski about HB1353 and how the state currently handles reports of possible terrorism:
TNReport: What specifically does your department do?
Shipkowski: The Office of Homeland Security is a part of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, and our mission is to prevent terrorism in Tennessee and protect our citizens and the critical infrastructure within the state.
TNReport: What would change for your department if HB1353 passed?
Shipkowski: This bill and its companion bill, SB 1028, are very different from the original bill that was proposed, which was referred to as the “Sharia bill.” When it comes to terrorism, the lead investigative agency for the nation is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. So when we get reports of suspicious activities or indicators of material support for terrorism, we immediately turn that information over to the FBI which has the national perspective and has certainly access to information that Tennessee does not have. So this law, theoretically is another tool for us to use. We’ll still work very closely with the FBI with anything that we do.
TNReport: How do you know that someone is involved in terrorist activity?
Shipkowski: Let’s focus in on the bill you’re talking about which discusses material support to terrorism. We look at terrorism in two versions: You’ve got operational terrorism, which means you’ve got a group of adversaries that are prepared to conduct an attack against citizens or a facility. The other form is the material support to terrorism, and those are people that are providing money, equipment, safe places for our adversaries. So an awful lot of the material support for terrorism investigations start out as criminal investigations, money laundering, smuggling, human trafficking. It’s when we, along with the FBI, conduct the investigation and connect the dots and where we see maybe the funding is going to a country overseas, or a group overseas, and we can tie it as material support for terrorism. We look for suspicious activities that could indicate that somebody is perhaps conducting surveillance on a site, or trying to get information on a site, and we also look for the old classic follow the money to see where the money — often from criminal activities or could be as simple as revenue fraud — see where that’s going. That’s the foundation for material support for terrorism investigations.
TNReport: It sounds like the bulk of individuals that could possibly be subject to this legislation are people who have been charged with something else like money laundering. Is that accurate?
Shipkowski: There’s gotta be some preponderance of evidence… that these individuals or that these entities are involved in an activity that’s supporting terrorism, and many of those would be criminal activities. At the national level, when groups are designated as providing material support to terrorism, it’s some of these legitimate or not legitimate charities they’ve been able to document, or getting money through illicit means and sending them overseas to terrorism organizations. So there’s gotta be solid evidence, even at the national level before an individual or entity is designated as providing material support for terrorism. I mean, that’s a fairly serious charge, and one that we would never impose lightly in Tennessee.
TNReport: If this legislation were to go into effect, do you have your own internal list of potential terrorists that you’re following?
Shipkowski: No. Again, with the FBI being the lead agency in the nation for terrorism, whenever we have indications based on an arrest, or support, or a suspicious activity report that this may be tied to terrorism, we forward the information to the FBI, and the FBI decides whether it becomes an investigation, and they take it from there. They’ve got the national-level authority to conduct these investigations, and we just provide them information that we think maybe, maybe show indications of material support to terrorism in Tennessee. So we don’t conduct the actual terrorist investigations, the FBI does that.
TNReport: How does the public know these people are really involved in terrorist activity?
Shipkowski: We go to great pains to not violate any privacy laws and civil rights laws. We don’t profile individuals, we don’t look for Muslims. We look for suspicious activity and — along with our partners in the FBI — before someone is charged with material support to terrorism, a very serious charge, there’s gotta be very solid evidence to support that charge, as there would be for any crime. There’s a very deliberate due process throughout all these investigations from the moment John Q Citizen reports suspicious activity to us, until the activity is reported to us, and we vet the activity to try to determine if its valid. … If we get a report, we do a good job at the state level of vetting it and corroborating evidence that something is going on. If we think it’s even got a potential tie to terrorism, we’ll get the FBI involved, and the FBI can look at national-level data and other FBI offices and federal agencies to see if there’s information to even begin an investigation.
And if they begin an investigation, often these investigations turn out that there was not anything to the initial report to the state. And a lot of investigations find that there’s no merit made to the claim against this group or entity, so it’s a very deliberate process that is solidly grounded in state and federal law, and to be perfectly honest, we’d get in a lot of trouble if we did not follow those procedures. But even more so, we have tremendous respect for the privacy and civil rights of Americans.
I’m a retired Army officer, I spent my life making sure Americans had all their rights of freedom, and our office is, you know I’d like to say beyond reproach when it comes to this. But say the citizens of Tennessee should have, you know, great trust and confidence in the way we do business.
TNReport: How many cases do you guys handle a year?
Shipkowski: I can’t tell you that number, and I know you don’t want to hear that, but there’s a significant number of material support to terrorism investigations ongoing in the state at any given time, the actual number of which, or the detail of which, is classified at the secret level or above and can’t be shared with the general public. Every given day there are ongoing material support investigations throughout the state of Tennessee.
TNReport: Do you think this legislation would add anything to fighting terrorism?
Shipkowski: I think the intent of the legislation is to provide us another tool. Until the legislation is actually passed by the full House and Senate and joint committees and becomes law, I can’t tell you what it’s gonna do. I believe the intent is to give us another tool in the toolbox.
This interview was edited for brevity.