It tells officials to operate "under the premise that other operatives are in the country and could advance plotting with little or no warning." Its list of vulnerable facilities seems to include just about everything: "Commercial Facilities, Government Facilities, Banking and Financial and Transportation . . ."
Bart R. Johnson, who heads the DHS's intelligence and analysis office, defended such reports, saying that threat reporting has "grown and matured and become more focused." The bulletins can't be more specific, he said, because they must be written at the unclassified level.
Recently, the International Association of Chiefs of Police agreed that the information they were receiving had become "more timely and relevant" over the past year.
Downing, however, said the reports would be more helpful if they at least assessed threats within a specific state's boundaries.
States have tried to do that on their own, but with mixed, and at times problematic, results.
In 2009, for instance, after the DHS and the FBI sent out several ambiguous reports about threats to mass-transit systems and sports and entertainment venues, the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center's Threat Analysis Program added its own information. "New Jersey has a large mass-transit infrastructure," its report warned, and "an NFL stadium and NHL/NBA arenas, a soccer stadium, and several concert venues that attract large crowds."
In Virginia, the state's fusion center published a terrorism threat assessment in 2009 naming historically black colleges as potential hubs for terrorism.
From 2005 to 2007, the Maryland State Police went even further, infiltrating and labeling as terrorists local groups devoted to human rights, antiwar causes and bike lanes.
And in Pennsylvania this year, a local contractor hired to write intelligence bulletins filled them with information about lawful meetings as varied as Pennsylvania Tea Party Patriots Coalition gatherings, antiwar protests and an event at which environmental activists dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out coal-filled stockings.
'We have our own terrorists'
Even if the information were better, it might not make a difference for the simplest of reasons: In many cities and towns across the country, there is just not enough terrorism-related work to do.
In Utah on one recent day, one of five intelligence analysts in the state's fusion center was writing a report about the rise in teenage overdoses of an over-the-counter drug. Another was making sure the visiting president of Senegal had a safe trip. Another had just helped a small town track down two people who were selling magazine subscriptions and pocketing the money themselves.
In the Colorado Information Analysis Center, some investigators were following terrorism leads. Others were looking into illegal Craigslist postings and online "World of Warcraft" gamers.
The vast majority of fusion centers across the country have transformed themselves into analytical hubs for all crimes and are using federal grants, handed out in the name of homeland security, to combat everyday offenses.
This is happening because, after 9/11, local law enforcement groups did what every agency and private company did in Top Secret America: They followed the money.
The DHS helped the Memphis Police Department, for example, purchase 90 surveillance cameras, including 13 that monitor bridges and a causeway. It helped buy the fancy screens on the walls of the Real Time Crime Center, as well as radios, robotic surveillance equipment, a mobile command center and three bomb-sniffing dogs. All came in the name of port security and protection to critical infrastructure.
Since there hasn't been a solid terrorism case in Memphis yet, the equipment's greatest value has been to help drive down city crime. Where the mobile surveillance cameras are set up, criminals scatter, said Lt. Mark Rewalt, who, on a recent Saturday night, scanned the city from an altitude of 1,000 feet.
Flying in a police helicopter, Rewalt pointed out some of the cameras the DHS has funded. They are all over the city, in mall parking lots, in housing projects, at popular street hang-outs. "Cameras are what's happening now," he marveled.
Meanwhile, another post-9/11 unit in Tennessee has had even less terrorism-related work to do.
The Tennessee National Guard 45th Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, one of at least 50 such units around the country, was created to respond to what officials still believe is the inevitable release of chemical, biological or radiological material by terrorists.
The unit's 22 hazardous-materials personnel have the best emergency equipment in the state. A fleet of navy-blue vehicles - command, response, detection and tactical operations trucks - is kept polished and ready to roll in a garage at the armory in Smyrna.