States Defend Counterterrorism 'Fusion Centers' After Harsh Senate Report

State homeland security leaders and the local law enforcement community are disputing a Senate subcommittee’s charges that a network of 77 anti-terrorism centers, set up after 9/11 to share information, has “not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.”
by , | October 5, 2012
 

By Maggie Clark

State homeland security leaders and the local law enforcement community are disputing a Senate subcommittee’s charges that a network of 77 anti-terrorism centers, set up after 9/11 to share information, has “not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.” The subcommittee’s investigation found the so-called “fusion centers” often offered shoddy investigative reports, breached privacy protections and mismanaged grant funds.

But the findings, released Wednesday (October 3), don’t tell the whole story, says Thomas MacLellan, director of the homeland security and public safety division at the National Governor’s Association. He said the report uses old information and doesn’t address the offices’ benefits. “We’ve heard from our constituents and they are behind the centers,” MacLellan says. “They’re a valuable asset to the states.”

The centers were established after the 9/11 Commission report directed state and local law enforcement to take a more active role in homeland security. The centers are owned and operated by state and local governments but receive much of their funding from the federal government through grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

MacLellan and other state and local law enforcement agencies criticized the report for using “outdated” information to make conclusions. Few of the instances were newer than 2010, and centers have made big updates since then, says Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Centers Association.

“At the fusion centers, we’re a fairly open group and any legislator that wants to come to our facilities and take a tour and ask questions, we’re very open about that,” Sena says. “(For this report) there was one visit in 2010 to a fusion center in Washington, DC.”

The offices are directed to “fuse” information gathered to share with law enforcement agencies, but the report questioned the fusion center value in many of the thwarted terrorism plots since 9/11. Specifically, in the 2009 investigation into Najibullah Zazi, an admitted terrorist who travelled from Aurora, Colorado to New York City with the plan of blowing himself up on the subway, the report questioned whether the Colorado fusion center was of much assistance since most of the tracking of Zazi was done by a state patrol officer. This didn’t sit well with Jim Davis, who led the FBI Denver office during the plot and now serves as executive director of the Coloroado Department of Public Safety and vice-chair of the Governor’s Homeland Security Advisors Council.

“The fact is, we, the United States, have successfully disrupted one al-Qaida plot in the United States, and the state fusion center played a significant role in that disruption,” Davis said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “I saw it. It’s an uncontestable fact for me.”

The report also charged that many centers were not yet up to speed. It mentioned a 2010 capabilities report conducted for the Department of Homeland Security that found that the Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center “appears to be struggling. The center exhibits limited capability to support the intelligence cycle . . . . Limited personnel, few documented processes or plans . . . hinder the ability to achieve baseline capabilities . . . .(T)here is limited capability to process or disseminate information collected.”

Since 2010, the Ohio center hired a new director, Bill Schenkelberg, who says that now the center has received a “dramatically improved” commendation from the Department of Homeland Security.

Much of the report dealt with the mismanagement of funds by the state fusion centers, and noted specific instances, including the purchase of Chevrolet Tahoes by the Arizona fusion center to respond to chemical or biological attacks, but a Flagstaff Fire Department chief was using one for his daily commute to work. The report also found that the San Diego fusion center had purchased 55 flat screen televisions and was using them for “open-source monitoring,” or “watching the news.”

Law enforcement agencies, however, are concerned that the anecdotes blur the larger picture of the centers’ importance. “I don’t want to belittle any of the anecdotes in the report,” says MacLellan, “but there’s a tremendous amount of concern in the law enforcement community about this report…you’re going to hear in the weeks a tremendous outcry from law enforcement about how important fusion centers are.”

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