Hundreds of police, firefighters, paramedics and even utility workers have been trained and recently dispatched as "Terrorism Liaison Officers" in Colorado and a handful of other states to hunt for "suspicious activity" — and are reporting their findings into secret government databases.

It's a tactic intended to feed better data into terrorism early-warning systems and uncover intelligence that could help fight anti-U.S. forces. But the vague nature of the TLOs' mission, and their focus on reporting both legal and illegal activity, has generated objections from privacy advocates and civil libertarians.

"Suspicious activity" is broadly defined in TLO training as behavior that could lead to terrorism: taking photos of no apparent aesthetic value, making measurements or notes, espousing extremist beliefs or conversing in code, according to a draft Department of Justice/Major Cities Chiefs Association document.

All this is anathema to opponents of domestic surveillance.

Yet U.S. intelligence and homeland security officials say they support the widening use of TLOs — state-run under federal agreements — as part of a necessary integrated network for preventing attacks.

"We're simply providing information on crime-related issues or suspicious circumstances," said Denver police Lt. Tony Lopez, commander of Denver's intelligence unit and one of 181 individual TLOs deployed across Colorado.

"We don't snoop into private citizens' lives. We aren't living in a communist state."

Local watchdogs

Among recent activities the Colorado contingent detailed:

• Thefts of copper that could be used in bomb-making.

• Civilians impersonating police officers and stopping vehicles — of particular concern with the pending Democratic National Convention in Denver.

• Graffiti showing a man holding an AK-47 rifle.

• Men filming the Dillon dam that holds Denver's water.

• Overheard threats.

• Widespread thefts of up to 20 propane gas tanks.

Future terrorism "is going to be noticed earliest at the most local level," said Robert Riegle, director of state and local programs for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington.

Civil liberties watchdogs warn of unprecedented new threats to privacy.

"The problem is, you're drafting individuals whose job isn't law enforcement to spy on ordinary Americans and report their activities to the government," said John Verdi, director of the open-government project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

In Colorado, TLOs report not only illegal but legal activity, such as bulk purchases along Colorado's Front Range of up to 150 disposable cellphones. TLO supervisors said these bulk buys were suspicious because similar phones are used as remote detonators for bombs overseas and can be re-sold to fund terrorism.

Taking photos or videos can be deemed suspicious because "surveillance is a precursor to terrorist activity," said Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Steve Garcia, an analyst in Colorado's intelligence fusion center south of Denver, which handles TLO-supplied information.

Colorado, California and Arizona are among the first to deploy TLOs after establishing robust state-run fusion centers, which initially relied on tips from private citizens. Federal security agents now sit in 25 of those centers, including Colorado's.

Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., also have deployed TLOs, and authorities in dozens of states are preparing to do so, said Norm Beasley, a retired Arizona trooper who has popularized the practice.

181 in Colorado

In Colorado, TLO training began last year, with FBI assistance. A three-day seminar presented material on how to recognize and stop suicide bombers and included discussion of civil liberties.

State officials declined to release the course syllabus or say specifically how far TLOs are allowed to go in search of information without a warrant.

The 181 TLOs in Colorado were deployed without any announcement over the past year and are posted widely from Durango in the mountains to metro Denver to La Junta on the eastern prairie.

"The thing that's surprising is how much stuff is out there," said Denver West Metro Fire Capt. Mike Kirkpatrick, who declined to specify observations he has submitted, saying some led to investigations.

National intelligence chiefs who coordinate the CIA and 15 other agencies launched an initiative this month to define "suspicious activity" for TLOs and develop a process for handling TLO information so that basic freedoms and privacy are protected, said John Cohen, information-sharing spokesman in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Training is crucial "because what we don't want is just people documenting innocent activities. We don't want police officers focusing on people because of their ethnicity and religion," Cohen said.

"What we're advocating for is developing a standardized process that can be put in place across the country so that frontline police officers (and others) are trained to recognize behaviors associated with certain activities related to terrorism," he said.

Major city police chiefs are participating.

"You can't profile. So you have to have behavior-based indicators of criminal activity where it's terrorism or activity that supports terrorism," said Tom Frazier, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Civil libertarians questioned why firefighters, paramedics and corporate employees — such as Xcel Energy and railroad officials in Colorado — are drafted into the effort. They say public trust in emergency responders will suffer.

The emerging TLO system "empowers the police officer to poke his nose into your business when you're doing absolutely nothing wrong. It moves the police officer away from his core function, to enforce the law, into being an intelligence officer gathering information about people," said Mike German, a 16-year FBI agent now advising the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Where are we going to draw the line?"