A new threat, a new institution: The fusion center

Rich Kelly, head of New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center, is building a new type of facility to improve threat information-sharing and coordination

8 steps to intelligence

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released standards last month that state, local and federal law enforcement officials must follow when they share information on suspicious activity that could have links to terrorism. Those standards define fusion centers as central nodes for sharing information.

The role of fusion centers in collection, integration, analysis and redistribution of incident information works this way: 1. Observation Someone witnesses something suspicious and reports it to authorities.

2. Initial response and investigation A law enforcement official gathers additional information from interviews and databases, such as Department of Motor Vehicles records and consolidated terrorist watch lists.

3. Local and regional information processing The reporting agency stores that investigative information in its records management system.

4. Creation of a suspicious activity report A law enforcement official assesses the investigative information using standards developed by ODNI. If the reported activity could have links to terrorism, the official creates an Information Sharing Environment Suspicious Activity Reporting (ISE-SAR) record.

5. Information sharing and dissemination That ISE-SAR record is shared with FBI and Homeland Security Department employees who work at the fusion center. The employees enter the information into FBI and DHS databases.

6. Information processing at the federal headquarters level The ISE-SAR record is combined with information from other state and local authorities to create an agency-specific national threat assessment, which is shared with agencies that participate in the Information Sharing Environment.

7. National Counterterrorism Center analysis ODNI’s National Counterterrorism Center analyzes the data using information from the intelligence, defense, law enforcement, foreign affairs and homeland security communities.

8. Threat alerts The National Counterterrorism Center produces threat alerts that it distributes via the fusion centers to federal, state, local and tribal officials.

— Ben Bain

WEST TRENTON, N.J. — Wedged between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey is easy to overlook geographically, but law enforcement and intelligence officials can’t afford to ignore the densely populated state with its oil refineries, pipelines, power plants and ports that help fuel an entire region. Protecting the Garden State from terrorist and criminal activities is a major challenge.

Few are more aware of the challenge than Rich Kelly, who recently retired from a top position at the FBI’s Newark Field Office to head New Jersey’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC). The Rock, as it’s called by people who work there, is a fusion center — a new type of facility being created in states and major urban areas, often with federal grant assistance, to improve threat information sharing and coordination with federal authorities.

Fusion centers are somewhat controversial and mysterious — the public does not know much about what goes on inside. Privacy advocates and civil-liberties groups are concerned about the risks of consolidating threat information, but law enforcement authorities say they expect the benefits to outweigh the risks.

Kelly’s experiences at the FBI and now at New Jersey State Police headquarters have taught him how to get authorities from various agencies to share information, as they rarely did before the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

That reluctance is slowly giving way to a willingness to exchange threat information.

“We are all on Team America,” Kelly said during a recent interview in the 55,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art ROIC at state police headquarters in West Trenton.

Team America describes the culture Kelly and his deputies want to create at the center, which houses local and federal law enforcement officials from various New Jersey state agencies; the Philadelphia Police Department; the Homeland Security Department; the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the FBI.

Analysts from those agencies start each day by convening what officials call the 10 a.m.

huddle, in which they share current threat information from each of their organizations. Multiple databases from different agencies bring gigabytes of law enforcement and intelligence information into the fusion center.

The daily meeting is crucial for connecting the dots and interpreting that data.

“What we are doing is forcing collaboration among folks in an interagency environment,” said New Jersey State Police Lt. Ray Guidetti, intelligence manager of the analysis unit at ROIC. “That’s a paradigm shift in law enforcement in general.” The center’s role is to foster “more sharing than collecting, or should I say hoarding?” According to DHS, there are now almost 70 fusion centers nationwide, each substantially different from the next. DHS has asked each state to designate a primary fusion center.

“The threat environment in a place like Texas or Arizona is vastly different from a place like Iowa or New Jersey,” said Jack Tomarchio, DHS’ principal deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis. And the fusion centers reflect that difference. For example, Arizona’s center is slated to receive a working group from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that will help local law enforcement authorities deal with border issues. A Texas fusion center houses officials from the state’s National Guard counter-drug unit and the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration to deal with local drug trafficking.

Congress has designated DHS as the lead agency for coordinating federal participation in fusion centers. FBI officials work in nearly every center. DHS has about 22 representatives at 20 locations, but it has pledged to have as many as 35 of its employees assigned to fusion centers by t he e d of September.

The big room
The liveliest area of the Rock is Watch Operations, which includes an expansive situation room where officials gather during a crisis to monitor events on large TV screens. The events they monitor — crimes, threats and hazards — are a measure of the center’s broad responsibilities. The quieter offices are upstairs in the analysis unit, which Guidetti runs.

In response to specific threats reported by federal agencies, the analysis unit publishes reports that explain what those threats could mean for New Jersey, Guidetti said.

New Jersey is among the few states in which the state police superintendent is also the director of the state’s Office of Emergency Management. Consequently, the Rock is a center of intensive command-and-control and monitoring activities.

At the center of the situation room is a 32-foot-by-12-foot multisource TV screen, which authorities can configure to receive dozens of feeds, including maps, cable and satellite TV broadcasts, and streaming video from fixed traffic cameras statewide or state police and National Guard helicopters.

A geographic information system mapping tool, called EPINET, has dramatically improved the fusion center’s collaboration and incident-response capabilities. “This has brought together data that we had never been able to look at at the same time,” said New Jersey State Police Maj. James Beshada, who commands the state police’s information technology unit. “Being able to overlay all these layers and look at them in parallel…has enabled us to see things that before we weren’t able to see.”

The state is developing databases for EPINET that depict critical infrastructure, hospitals and schools statewide. They contain data on nearly 55,000 facilities and other resources. “All that’s information that if there is a big operation going on, and this room is jumping with people from the counties and the state agencies and the [Department of Environmental Protection] and the state police — that’s the kind of stuff that they want to know,” said Chris Rein, chief information officer and IT manager for the New Jersey State Police.

The Rock operates in a complex jurisdictional environment involving 550 independent police departments and other agencies in the state. Like other fusion centers, the Rock has links to federal databases, including DHS’ sensitive but unclassified Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), the FBI’s Law Enforcement Online (LEO) system and the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) supported by the Justice Department.

New Jersey officials have learned how to manage the huge volume of data available to fusion center employees. “When we first started this operation, we thought that we had to read everything,” Guidetti said. But there were too many sources of information for that to be feasible. “By establishing intelligence requirements, you can begin to filter what comes in.”

Data overload?
The FBI is working with DHS to streamline the information it supplies to fusion centers, said Michael Mines, who was deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence before transferring to the bureau’s criminal division earlier this month. DHS also recently announced that it would release a new version of HSIN, which officials hope will improve information sharing.

Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee, said the committee will closely monitor DHS’ plans for consolidating a number of unclassified Web portals used for sharing data with state and local authorities and the impact that consolidation could have on H IN. br />
“Too much information can be a problem because our analysts need to focus on what’s important,” Reichert said. “At the same time, it’s difficult to discern what is important if you cannot see the aggregate data to focus on trends.”

Not all intelligence analysts see an unalloyed benefit in consolidating intelligence information. There are also benefits from having multiple databases, said Roxann Ryan, an intelligence analyst at the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center. There is value in redundancy if one system goes down, she said. Also, having data in separate databases provides different contexts for its interpretation.

“You take a picture of the elephant, but it’s so big that sometimes you want to kind of look at it from different angles,” she said.

In some cases, arguments for consolidating data prevail because having so many versions of the same intelligence information creates confusion. Patrick O’Burke, commander of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Information and Analysis, which is located in that state’s primary fusion center, said the problem is not as much about information overload as it is about circular reporting. Different accounts of the same incident or event cause problems.

Kelly said he doesn’t envision the center’s primary databases — HSIN, LEO and RISS — ever being consolidated, but training New Jersey analysts to understand the information in those databases is important, he added. “If we’re talking apples and they’re talking oranges, it’s not going to work. What moves that process along is having the FBI and DHS presence here to understand our environment and cull information that they see of value.”

New Jersey designed its NJ-DEx criminal records management system to be easy to use. The system’s interface has the uncluttered look of Google’s popular Web search engine. NJ-DEx “provides one place where we can define rules and security privileges for who can see and do what,” Beshada said.

New Jersey officials plan to use the NJ-DEx system to share local criminal records with state and federal officials pursuing investigations in their jurisdictions. Criminal records, unlike intelligence products, are factual information, officials said. Authorities want to link NJ-DEx to the FBI’s N-DEx system, which would give FBI agents access to local criminal records for investigations.

Most of the tips and leads that come into the Rock’s situation room are from members of the public, who reach the fusion center by dialing 866-4 SAFE NJ. By agreement, the FBI has the right of first refusal for 72 hours to decide which tips it wants to investigate. The FBI typically keeps about 20 percent of incoming tips for further investigation. That arrangement helps the fusion center manage the tips and keeps the various law enforcement agencies from getting in one another’s way, Kelly said.

Evolution of fusion centers


The 9/11 Commission Report described technology as an intelligence asset and liability.

“Even the best [IT] will not improve information sharing so long as the intelligence agencies’ personnel and security systems reward protecting information rather than disseminating it,” the commissioners wrote.

Following the attacks, Ray Churay, at the time an FBI assistant special agent in Phoenix, said he thought about how Arizona and the FBI could better coordinate their activities. Soon he began meeting with a colleague from the Arizona Department of Public Safety. They started mapping — sometimes on napkins — what would become the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Ce nter, one of the country’s first fusion centers.

At the same time, other police officials nationwide saw the value of sharing information, and New York City officials were creating their own fusion center. In March 2002, a year before DHS’ creation, the International Association of Chiefs of Police called for a national plan for sharing intelligence. That recommendation led Justice’s Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global) consortium to draft a National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan in October 2003.

That plan defined roles that state and local law enforcement agencies would play in combating terrorism and crime. In the next two years, state intelligence fusion centers proliferated.

By August 2006, the Fusion Center Focus Group, in partnership with Justice and DHS’Homeland Security Advisory Council, had published the first guidelines for fusion centers. The guidelines required fusion centers to establish privacy policies and established data-sharing standards. Those standards included Justice’s Global Justice Extensible Markup Language Data Model and the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM).

Conformance to those standards varies. The Texas Department of Public Safety Intelligence Center, which opened in October 2007, is widely seen as a model of NIEM compliance. “A lot of our ability to share information with federal partners is very dependent on those NIEM standards,” O’Burke said. “You just have to live with those standards.”

Mission creep?
Although counterterrorism was once the primary rationale for creating fusion centers, most of them now accept responsibility for responding to all threats. The centers play an increasingly prominent role in local law enforcement and are communication hubs for federal, state and local authorities.

Officials interviewed for this article said that role is appropriate because terrorist activity often has a criminal component. Furthermore, few centers — with the possible exception of New York City — can justify maintaining full-time staff members whose job is solely counterterrorism.

Not everyone is comfortable with the centers’ activities, however.

Some privacy advocates and civil libertarians say the all-crimes, all-hazards approach is mission creep, and they worry that the centers operate with excessive secrecy.

Michael German, a former FBI agent who now is policy counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, said the fusion center guidelines for reporting suspicious activity issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence encourage state and local law enforcement officers to collect intelligence for the federal government, effectively deputizing an 800,000-person domestic law enforcement agency.

Others, however, do not see a danger in that development. John Cohen, a spokesman for ODNI’s Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment, said the guidelines, released in January, will reduce unwarranted reports by clarifying reporting criteria. “It provides a definition that is communicated and understood across all communities,” Cohen said.

Nevertheless, Ger an said he is worried about how authorities involved in intelligence-led policing efforts might interpret reasonable suspicion, which has been defined by federal regulations for sharing criminal information. He said he is concerned because some activities that fall within the definition of suspicious activity are not inherently criminal, such as photographing facilities.

Officials involved in the fusion center program who were interviewed for this article said that when threat investigations begin, typically no bright lines separate criminal and terrorist activities.

Mines said that drawing those lines would be limiting.

German disagrees. “Somebody has to be in charge, and t ere have to be bright lines,” he said. “The guys on the ground want bright lines.”

Meanwhile, officials involved in the fusion center program say they obey state and federal criminal record-sharing laws, and fusion centers that have not finished writing privacy policies are supposed to complete that task soon. The Rock is almost ready to publish the privacy and civil liberties policies that will guide its work.

“There’s plenty of work to do,” Kelly said. “We don’t need to go digging up stuff to violate people’s civil rights.”

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