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Fusion Centers Struggle to Find Their Place in the Post-9/11 World

Fusion centers were created in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks to improve information gathering and intelligence surveillance among law enforcement agencies. But their effectiveness and legality has been questioned ever since.

Investigators examine the site of the Boston Marathon bombings in April. (Photo: AP/Elise Amendola)

When terrorist suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev set off two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April, those immersed in the science of homeland security pondered a handful of obvious questions: What had authorities done to secure the route, and was securing all 26.2 miles of the course even possible? Had local law enforcement picked up any chatter related to a possible attack in advance of the incident? And were the brothers homegrown terrorists or connected with some foreign group?

Those are the kinds of questions that routinely get examined though an extensive intelligence infrastructure in place in the form of nationwide “fusion centers.” They were set up by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as a way to improve information gathering and intelligence surveillance among the country’s various law enforcement agencies.

But fusion centers are controversial. Questions have been raised about how effective they are in securing the nation from both homegrown and outside threats, and in their approach to the delicate business of intelligence gathering.

Boston isn’t new to the debate about the efficacy or the tactics of fusion centers. In March 2007, Boston police took it upon themselves to monitor an antiwar event at a local church, taking careful notes and later filing an intelligence report that described the gathering as a criminal act involving extremists. When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) later obtained a copy of the report and published the information, the public was astonished and outraged to learn of the surveillance, which was undertaken by Boston’s fusion center, known as the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC.

The ACLU accused the Boston police of trying to suppress legitimate constitutionally protected speech in a broad-based effort at thwarting terrorism. The police responded by saying the report should have been purged from its records, but a glitch in the computer system failed to remove it. The incident hardly served to instill great confidence among citizens in either the mission or the tactics of BRIC.

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But there are other cases of fusion centers performing exactly the functions they were set up to execute. Two years after the Boston church surveillance incident, law enforcement authorities in North Carolina shut down a terrorist group led by an American named Daniel Patrick Boyd, who had trained in militant camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 1990s. The group had provided money and transportation to help terrorists overseas while amassing a large cache of weapons before the FBI and local police arrested Boyd and seven members of his group. Boyd is now serving an 18-year sentence. The intelligence that led to the breakup of his domestic terrorist organization was produced by the North Carolina Information Sharing & Analysis Center.

The different outcomes at the fusion centers in North Carolina and Boston reflect their mixed record overall. Conceived in 2004, the centers were set up to be state-run information networks that would have guidance and support from the federal government and operate in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies in the war on terrorism. Today, they have become centers that communicate and analyze “all crimes” and “all hazards.” The result is more confusion than fusion. The centers, critics charge, have grown unwieldy and wasteful. Meanwhile, the ACLU complains that the lack of oversight has led to far more serious problems, such as abuses of privacy and civil liberties.

Fusion centers are not without their supporters. They argue that in a post-9/11 world, the U.S. needs more information and intelligence sharing between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, not less. They also point out that preventing crime and terrorism will always be a difficult outcome to measure.

“You have to remember, they have a very difficult charter, figuring out what they are to do,” says Rick Nelson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “They have demonstrated their value. The question is how do they continue to evolve to contribute to the security of the country.”

When the 9/11 Commission issued its recommendations in 2004 on how the country could guard against future attacks, a key finding was the need for more robust information sharing between state and local law enforcement agencies and federal intelligence agencies. The result was the creation of fusion centers, which were to form the centerpiece of the U.S. domestic antiterrorism strategy. The mission was to collaborate and combine resources, expertise and information with the goal of maximizing the ability to detect and prevent any criminal or domestic terrorism activity, and apprehend those who might be involved in confirmed plots.

Today there are 78 fusion centers that range in size from small three-person offices to massive centers with a staff of 250 officers, agents and analysts. Mike Sena, director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center and president of the National Fusion Center Association, says that of the 78 centers, 49 are state centers, another 26 operate in major urban areas and three are territorial.

The center in Northern California has a staff of 70 representing 23 different agencies, including state law enforcement agencies, the California Department of Justice, state highway patrol, local sheriffs, local police departments, the FBI, state and local emergency management agencies, and even some public health officials. In addition, the fusion center also includes operations in what’s known as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

If you’re thinking of a large room with banks of computer screens and digital maps, forget it. “We aren’t like the Tom Cruise movie, ‘Minority Report,’” Sena says. Rather, the staff works in cubicles, sifting through raw data, analyzing information and creating reports.

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As broad and all-encompassing as it sounds, the center has been working well, Sena claims, and has cut down duplication of information sharing since its creation in 2007. That said, he admits that the center he runs and the 77 others around the country are still works in progress. “This is a new network,” he says. “It takes time to build an operation, including three to five years to develop the kind of analytical capability that a fusion center needs.”

Getting any kind of information sharing network up and running is never an easy task, and when it involves law enforcement agencies from three branches of government (four, if you include tribal), the difficulties and complexities are only magnified. Despite that challenge, some experts who track America’s intelligence programs are cautiously optimistic about the job fusion centers are doing. The question, of course, is how they are developing to protect the country against an ever-evolving threat.

That’s an important question because in the short time fusion centers have been around, they have come to have different purposes. States provide the bulk of the centers’ funding with the rest coming from DHS and other federal agencies. States also decide how the centers will operate, and with 50 of them, the results aren’t harmonious. “Some states have used them effectively and have the resources to put into the centers,” says CSIS’ Nelson. “Other states have not been able to realize the same value.”

With today’s fiscal constraints, the inconsistency of how fusion centers are funded has become even more problematic. Federal grant spending on state and local homeland security has been dropping steadily since 2010, according to the Federal Funds Information for States. Every state or local police officer in a fusion center means one less cop on the beat. That can add up when a fusion center is manned by dozens of officers. Last year, Utah’s legislature stripped out funding for its fusion center, only to restore it after pressure from local law enforcement agencies. Oregon’s two fusion centers are also in danger of closing due to a lack of grant funding from the federal government.

Inconsistent funding is a major strategic problem. “It’s hard to run an operation like this when you don’t know what your budget will be,” Sena says. “There’s no real funding strategy across the board.”

The lack of reliable financial support from fiscally beleaguered federal agencies and state governments looms large. But an even bigger problem could be the very mission of fusion centers. In October, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report based on a two-year investigation that found the centers had not been effective in doing their job despite the huge sums of taxpayer money spent on their operations.

The investigation said the centers produced intelligence of uneven quality, sometimes endangering citizens’ privacy, and that DHS did not monitor how the money provided to the states -- estimated between $289 million and $1.4 billion -- was used. Instead, the report uncovered spending on items that had little to do with intelligence gathering, from shirt-button cameras to a fully loaded SUV used for daily commuting.

“It’s troubling that the very fusion centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem,” said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation. “Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.”

While the report made headlines and brought fusion centers to national attention, it was just the latest in a long line of reports critical of the centers. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that no “standard performance measures” are used to demonstrate the impact and value of fusion centers when it comes to information sharing goals.

In 2009, professor Torin Monahan, who conducts research on surveillance and security issues at the University of North Carolina, published a paper that raised questions about how fusion centers shared information with private-sector data brokers. “There are no clear mechanisms for oversight or accountability with fusion centers, in spite of the fact that private companies are likely obtaining unprecedented access to government data on individuals, and vice versa.”

The Senate report was strongly denounced by supporters of the intelligence gathering community. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has since retired, said the public record showed that fusion centers had played a significant role in thwarting terrorism and had generated hundreds of leads for the FBI. California’s Sena echoed that sentiment, saying that the recommendations in the report were helpful, but the methodologies used were flawed.

One of the recommendations called for Congress to link fusion center funding to performance, a potentially complicated concept since fusion centers are fundamentally in the prevention business, something that’s not easy to measure. Nevertheless, Matt A. Mayer, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, backs that idea and would like to see it taken one step further. “I think there’s a fundamental flaw in how fusion centers are designed,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a sufficient level of activity in most locations to justify a fusion center.” Mayer believes the number of centers around the country needs to be scaled back to 40 or fewer.

More troubling to many fusion center critics is the lack of oversight with civil liberties and privacy. The ACLU has raised concerns about the centers’ ambiguous lines of authority, the participation of private-sector data brokers, questionable data mining tactics and their overall “excessive secrecy.” According to the Senate report, fusion centers have produced intelligence of “uneven quality -- oftentimes, shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.”

In 2011, an investigation by the Associated Press found that the New York City Police Department had been regularly spying on mosques, student groups, Muslim businesses and communities, with only mixed results to show for its aggressive surveillance work. For New York state Sen. Kevin Parker, who represents a broad range of ethnic communities in his Brooklyn district, the reports of police spying programs raised alarms. “I’m all for coordination among law enforcement agencies when it comes to information sharing and surveillance, but there needs to be accountability,” he says. “We’re talking about agencies that have large amounts of personal data. We have no idea what’s happening with that information. What are they going to do with it?”

Parker has introduced three bills that will provide oversight of fusion centers while protecting privacy and prohibiting “biased-based profiling” from occurring. While the bills will only affect the action of the fusion centers located in New York, they could provide a road map for how other states can address some of the problems that have surfaced with fusion centers.

Some might argue that if Parker’s bills become law, they could have a chilling effect on the country’s ongoing efforts to deal with terrorist threats that grow more sophisticated and have the potential to do harm on a large scale. But Parker worries we may be giving away too much in the name of protection and safety. “Those who are willing to give up a little freedom for more security will get neither.”

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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