Strategy refines fusion centers’ role

An expanded scope for the centers alarms privacy groups who fear misuse of data

7 roles for feds

The National Strategy for Information Sharing codifies the roles that intelligence fusion centers owned by state and local organizations should play in combating terrorism. The document also describes federal responsibilities, including:

  • Defining baseline operational standards for the centers.

  • Providing training, support and technical assistance to help
    fusion centers meet those standards.

  • Modifying grants or funding programs to help fusion centers reach baseline operating standards and maintain them.

  • Coordinating the assignment of federal employees to fusion
    centers.

  • Supporting state, local and tribal efforts to produce site-specific risk assessments

  • Ensuring that privacy rights are safeguarded as the centers collect and use locally generated information.

  • Developing a future investment strategy for how much the federal government should pay to support the centers.

  • — Ben Bain

    The Bush administration plans to provide the necessary funding and support to make state and local fusion centers the focal point for sharing terrorism-related intelligence with nonfederal authorities.

    Administration officials released a National Strategy for Information Sharing last week that calls for an integrated network of fusion centers where state, local and federal officials could work side by side to prevent terrorism. Congressional leaders said they welcomed the new strategy, which encourages the sharing of information about all hazards and all crimes that have national security implications.

    But some privacy and civil liberties groups maintained reservations about what information will be shared and stored without a clear statutory definition of terrorism.

    Immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks, state and local fusion centers sprouted nationwide to deal with terrorism threats and improve their analysis capabilities. Fifty-eight centers now are established or under development. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report on the centers, however, only about 15 percent of the 36 fusion centers contacted said their mission still is focused solely on counterterrorism.

    Tracy Floyd, deputy director of the month-old Mississippi Analysis and Information Center in Pearl, Miss., said having a broader mission for the centers is good. An all-crimes, all-hazards focus is necessary for preventing future terrorist attacks, she added.

    “Everything that happens is a local issue,” Floyd said. “It starts on a local level, and it’s going to end on a local level. And somewhere in the midst of all that criminal activity or those threats, there could be a nexus to terrorism.”

    Floyd added that information sharing is critical. “If we just keep holding that information and hoarding it, we are going to have another 9/11.”

    The new strategy calls for maintaining the centers as locally owned and operated facilities but interconnecting them with the national Information Sharing Environment under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

    The strategy calls for maintaining a balance between information privacy and national security. But privacy advocates criticized the strategy for lacking enforceability, oversight and statutory definitions.

    “There has been a mission creep,” said Michael German, policy counsel on national security at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Something that started out as counterterrorism blended into all-crimes.”

    Roxann Ryan, a criminal intelligence analyst at the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center said that she welcomes the new strategy’s uniformity. A six-foot replica of the Bill of Rights at the Iowa’s center’s entrance reminds employees about privacy, she added.

    Bush administration officials also received a positive response to the strategy from Democratic lawmakers, who had recently joined congressional researchers, government auditors and privacy advocates in criticizing the Homeland Security Department and the FBI for lacking a clearly defined strategy for fusion centers.

    A DHS spokesman declined to comment because officials still were reviewing the document.

    German said DHS has listened to privacy groups, but Congress has not done enough to include them.

    “What this administration defines as protecting the rights of Americans is real fuzzy at this point,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “One person’s terrorism may be another person’s free speech.” 

    About the Author

    Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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