GAO: Quantity of information, databases challenge fusion centers

Many state and local officials who work at fusion centers report problems logging onto federal networks and have difficulty handling the high volume of information they receive from federal authorities, according to a recent survey by government auditors.

Nonfederal authorities started forming fusion centers to improve information sharing after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then the national authorities have become increasingly involved — particularly the Homeland Security Department and FBI, who have field agents assigned to some of the centers.

Officials from 31 of the 58 fusion centers contacted said they had trouble getting access to federal systems, according to the October report, which was released by the Government Accountability Office Nov. 29. Twelve centers reported challenges meeting security requirements, while officials at 18 said they had trouble handling the high volume of information coming in. Furthermore, 11 said that the redundancy of data from multiple sources was challenging.

The report does state DHS and FBI have taken some steps to remedy logistical issues and improve access. Additionally, the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment (PM-ISE), the office responsible for improving governmentwide information sharing, has been working to address the issue of duplicate or redundant information on unclassified systems.

But sharing intelligence fluidly among local state and federal agencies means they all must speak the same language, something that different levels and branches of government traditionally have not done.

ODNI’s National Counterterrorism Center has been working to solve the consistency issues by coming up with standards for communicating among fusion centers through consultations with state and local authorities in NCTC’s Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group, said John Cohen, a spokesman for the PM-ISE. The office is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

DHS has also been working to streamline and merge its classified networks into a single, integrated system called the Homeland Secure Data Network so the department can better provide classified access to state, local and tribal governments.

And while consolidating all the agencies' systems into one big database or eliminating databases altogether that contain duplicate information may seem like a simple fix to some, that could have unintentional consequences, Cohen said.

Eliminating a database could mean that some law enforcement capabilities will be lost as each database was created for specific reasons, he said.

Roxann Ryan, a criminal intelligence analyst at the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center, said multiple sources are important because each system can provide unique context that can aid an investigation.

“The biggest problem generally is that with the technology we have today it is easy to have info overload and the goal of intelligence is always to provide analysis, context,” she said. “That’s why I think it is so important for each fusion center to set priorities and look for the things that matter for each fusion center.”

The access that state and local officials have to sensitive but classified databases, the Homeland Security Department’s secret database and the FBI’s secret network also varies greatly by fusion center because each one’s focus and capabilities differ.

Ryan said that as each fusion center continue to better define their specific missions it will become easier for them to determine which federal data is most relevant.

Meanwhile, local, state and federal authorities continue to promulgate centers as being owned and operated by state and local authorities and insist that they focus on all crimes and hazards rather than just terrorism. They say that each center needs to have its own foci and the approach is important because terrorism is often linked to criminal activity.

“From the standpoint of the state and local authorities, it’s irrelevant whether [a crime] is caused by mental illness political ideology or religious ideology — it’s an act of violence,” Cohen said.

But, privacy advocates have called the all-crimes, all-hazards approach a mission creep. Furthermore, they argue that the government has not clearly defined what is and what is not terrorism. They also worry privacy will not be ensured and protections will not be standardized as information travels between local, state and federal authorities.

Cohen, however, said privacy advocates should prefer that centers take the all-crimes approach because of the clearly defined frameworks on how information needs to be protected in criminal investigations.

He also said that since the GAO report was done, the Bush administration had addressed the report’s major concern that the government had not expressed its long-term vision and commitment to fusion centers by releasing the National Strategy for Information Sharing Oct. 31.

The White House strategy calls for fusion centers to achieve a baseline of capability and pursue the goal of establishing a “national, integrated network of fusion centers to enable the effective sharing of terrorism-related information.” The plan also promises to support the centers through grant funding and training, support their all-crimes focus and to maintain their locally owned and operated status.

The strategy’s announcement was received positively by lawmakers who had called for more direction from the White House, but privacy advocates said they remained worried that the program still lacked oversight.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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