What next for fusion centers?

Editor's Note: This story has been updated Aug. 11 at 11:12 a.m. EST. Please go to "Corrections and Clarifications" for details.

The Homeland Security Department has made great strides in three years in developing relationships with state and local law enforcement authorities, said Robert Riegle, director of DHS’ state and local programs. But as the department prepares to continue under a new presidential administration — its first transition — many questions remain open.

Riegle touted the progress his office has made in information sharing and building relationships with the nation’s 800,000-officer state and local law enforcement community in an article he published in the July issue of the Homeland Defense Journal. Riegle singled out the network of more than 50 state and local intelligence fusion centers that nonfederal authorities have created around the country.

The centers have been the topic of several congressional hearings and were mentioned in the Bush administration’s National Strategy for Information Sharing as the central node for sharing terrorism-related information among federal, state and local authorities.

“Fusion centers form a critical bridge for sharing information vertically between the federal government and our partners, as well as horizontally across the states,” Charles Allen, DHS’ undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee July 23.

However, some questions linger. Who should pay for that bridge? What kind of data should travel over it, and in what direction? Who should oversee its construction?

The broad and local scope of fusion centers
Fusion center advocates and officials are quick to point out that the centers are owned and operated by state and local authorities. Many also emphasize the need for fusion centers to employ an all-crimes, all-hazards approach rather than one that is limited to counterterrorism.

The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) have discussed the preference for the broader approach in recent reports.

For example, according to a CRS report, only about 15 percent of the 36 fusion centers contacted said their mission still is focused solely on counterterrorism. Meanwhile, GAO found that in about half of the operational centers that auditors have contacted, officials said their facilities included all-hazards information, such as that related to public health and safety or emergency response.

Officials say the all-crimes, all-hazards approach is necessary because it is sometimes impossible to know immediately whether an incident is ordinary criminal activity or connected to terrorism. In addition, only the largest urban areas could justify spending millions per year to maintain a center.

That approach means the fusion centers vary greatly in their characteristics, depending on the needs of their communities. Officials often point out that no two fusion centers are alike and can differ significantly depending on the local needs they’re designed to address.

David Sobczyk, commander of the Chicago Police Department’s Deployment Operations Center and the city’s fusion center — which includes the Crime Prevention Information Center — said the needs of local authorities will continue to drive the development of fusion centers.

“Like it or not, the locals are going to drive policy,” he said.

Sobczyk, speaking at a July 30 conference sponsored by the Homeland Defense Journal in Washington, said Chicago is also working on programs that boost awareness in sectors beyond local law enforcement and firefighting. The programs are intended to enhance the alertness of sanitation workers and people who work in the hotel and hospitality management fields.

“Everybody realizes that if you pool your resources and put them in one place, then it’s easier,” added Jeff Wobbleton, manager of the Metropolitan Washingto n Fusion Center, who sat on a panel with Sobczyk at the conference. “You work smarter and not harder, and we all have a piece of the puzzle.”
Federal authorities are also working out the role the private sector will play in the centers.

The Justice Department is preparing to release a set of baseline standards for the information-sharing capabilities of the more than 50 state and local intelligence fusion centers nationwide. Those guidelines are supposed to further address privacy issues.

In addition, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is working to create a national information-sharing environment in which local authorities track criminal and suspicious activities that could be part of a terrorism plot and share that information with federal authorities through state and local fusion centers.

In January, ODNI set standards for how state, local and federal law enforcement officials should share information on suspicious activity that could have potential links to terrorism. Federal officials say they are examining the Los Angeles Police Department’s new procedures for police officers to report activities that could be linked to terrorism, seeing those procedures as a potential model.

How much info is too much?
At the centers, officials have access to a wide range of information technology and intelligence products designed to improve collaboration. However, one challenge is making sure officials at the centers have the necessary clearances to view threat information and intelligence.

“The fusion center program is part of the strategic vision of [ODNI] to move us as a community away from kind of the old Cold War model and the need to know concept and more toward a responsibility to provide,” said Timothy Edgar, deputy for civil liberties at ODNI’s Civil Liberties and Protection Office.

“It’s really easy in information sharing to say that we are going to dump a huge amount of information on another agency and say ‘OK, we got it covered we told you everything in our database,’ ” he said. “That’s obviously not going to be useful to anybody.”

However, privacy and civil liberties advocates have concerns about the breadth of information that fusion centers will share and the protections in place.

Michael German, a former FBI agent who now is policy counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, is worried specifically about efforts to begin sharing suspicious activity reports.

The ACLU said that because activities that could be described as suspicious are often not criminal and are often protected by the First Amendment, policing those activities opens the door to racial profiling and other inappropriate police behavior. In a report issued last month, the ACLU also pointed to recent revelations that the Maryland State Police conducted surveillance of nonviolent anti-war activists and entered the data officers gathered into a federal drug enforcement database that was accessible by the fusion center. The civil liberties group said the activities of the fusion centers represent part of a nascent domestic surveillance system and that more congressional oversight is needed.

The official responsible for the federal database said the file was never accessed by the fusion center or anyone else. However, German said, the fact that the information was available demonstrates the potential dangers of having too much information available.

“If the federal government is going to take responsibility for adding resources to create this [fusion center] network, they have the responsibility to make sure e ery part of that network is operating within the rules,” he said.

However, John Cohen, a senior adviser for ODNI’s Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment, said the new standards for sharing information a t suspicious activities that are being developed, along with the upcoming baseline guidance from the Justice Department, will help clarify the process absent at the time of the Maryland incident and other events the ACLU cites.

Fusion center advocates also note that people who work in the centers must take required privacy and civil liberties training programs.

“It is important to get privacy right in this program,” said Ken Hunt, the DHS Privacy Office’s director of legislative and regulatory analysis. “We cannot allow privacy concerns — legitimate or otherwise, frankly — to create a perception that somehow this program is not protecting privacy and civil liberties.”

The money question
Funding is perhaps the biggest question facing fusion center directors as they ponder the future. The federal government has pledged to support the centers and help them reach a minimum baseline capability. However, some worry about the current restrictions on how DHS grants can be used to support the centers.

Tom Monahan, director of Las Vegas’ fusion center, said that although he is confident that politicians in both the executive and legislative branches understand the need for fusion centers, he believes that funding for homeland security efforts generally will continue to drop as time goes on without a terrorist attack.

GAO reported in April that fusion center officials remained uncertain about how the federal government was planning to assist state and local governments in sustaining their centers.

The House passed a measure in July that would amend some restrictions on federal financial assistance provided to state and local governments for the centers. The measure would allow state and local authorities to use a greater percentage of DHS grant money awarded for any fiscal year to pay for personnel and operational cost and remove restrictions on whether funds can be used to pay for analysts.

It remains unclear whether those changes will become law, and if they do, if they will solve all the funding issues confronting fusion centers. It also remains to be seen whether the upcoming guidance for the centers will satisfy civil liberties and privacy concerns.

However, it is clear that federal, state and local authorities; Congress; and the administration have identified fusion centers as important institutions for reconciling the information-sharing issues that were identified after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“The fusion centers, and the partnerships they forge with the federal government, are mechanisms necessary to carry us smoothly into the next phase,” Riegle wrote in his article. 

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