Confusion over fusion centers

Lawmakers want to clarify the centers’ responsibilities and future funding

New law codifies DHS’ role

The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, which President Bush signed in August, addresses several aspects of fusion centers.

Under that law, the Homeland Security Department’s role in fusion centers is to:

  • Provide operational and intelligence advice and assistance to local, state and regional fusion centers.

  • Support initiatives to include the centers in efforts to establish a nationwide information-sharing

  • Assess the capability of individual and regional networks of centers to integrate their efforts with DHS’ efforts.

  • Encourage fusion centers to participate in terrorism-related threat exercises.

— Ben Bain

Fusion centers for sharing counterterrorism information have proliferated so rapidly in the past several years that lawmakers, government auditors and privacy advocates are calling for a national strategy.

“All of us have said this is a good concept, but clearly we need to do some work on the strategy and on sustaining the resources,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee.

State and local governments have established many of the 40 fusion centers to prevent and prepare for threats in their jurisdictions.
In recent years, federal officials have directed more funding to those centers, but states’ dollars still account for 80 percent of the centers’ budgets. The Homeland Security Department doled out $380 million in grants to support the centers through the end of 2006.

About 30 percent of the centers are co-located at federal agencies, and almost all of them have some federal presence. DHS has 18 intelligence officers and the FBI has more than 250 officers deployed at fusion centers.

Although Congress designated DHS as the executive agency in charge, the centers are locally owned and controlled, and federal authorities work within that framework.

However, some observers say it is sometimes unclear who is in charge of the centers and whether their mission is primarily counterterrorism.

DHS officials said the centers should be used for the purpose for which the state and local authorities created them — which is to prevent and prepare for all hazards, including terrorism.
“I don’t really understand why there is so much confusion on this,” said Jack Tomarchio, principal deputy assistant secretary of intelligence and analysis at DHS.

“We favor the all-crimes, all-hazards, all-threats approach” for fusion centers, Tomarchio added. “We believe there is, in many cases, a clear and present nexus between criminal activity and terrorism.”

The technical difficulties of sharing and sorting through threat data stored in multiple, overlapping databases have proved to be major challenges for fusion centers.

“I am baffled why DHS and the FBI still haven’t consolidated their multiple information-sharing systems so fusion center staff [don’t] need to log on to three, four or five different networks to determine what threats they’re waking up to each morning,” Harman said in her opening statement at a recent subcommittee hearing.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department has released a series of guidelines for jurisdictions to use in developing fusion centers.
Privacy advocates say they are concerned that data errors will be magnified as centers pass information from local to state to federal officials or databases without court approval.

Privacy groups also say they object to the centers using data supplied by private-sector entities and agencies outside the law enforcement community.

In response, DHS officials said they now offer a privacy and civil liberties training program for center employees.

In the program’s first 15 months, the centers have had no privacy violations, said Robert Riegle, deputy director of the State and Local Program Office in DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
Using data that flows from local authorities to federal authorities and vice versa to prevent and not simply respond to crimes is cause for concern, said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“The underlying problem is that they don’t have clear guidance,” Coney said. “They don’t have oversight, and it’s not transparent.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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