Lawmaker to DHS: Step it up with fusion centers

The Homeland Security Department is at risk for losing support for funding because it is not doing a good enough job of sharing information with state, local and federal homeland security officials, the chairwoman of the House subcommittee that oversees information sharing and intelligence gathering said March 18.

Speaking at the National Fusion Center Conference in San Francisco this week, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee’s intelligence subcommittee, said DHS’ Intelligence and Analysis Office (OIA) needs to improve its relationships with and understanding of the needs of state and local authorities to make its fusion center initiative successful. Congress has designated DHS as the lead agency for coordinating federal participation in local- and state-owned and operated fusion centers nationwide.

“I’m not convinced DHS gets the point about state and local participation,” she said in her prepared statement.

Harman drew on critiques from a DHS-commissioned report released last month by CENTRA Technologies, a consulting firm, that examined progress being made with the initiative and suggested ways information sharing among DHS and state and local authorities could be improved. Recommendations in the report included establishing:

• An employee or group of employees who will serve as focal point for all inquiries from state and local authorities.
• A planning process for producing intelligence products that specifically address the needs of state and local officials.
• An online, open-source training program for state and local officials.
• A permanent leadership council of senior DHS officials to bolster the department’s administrative and logistical efforts.
• Performance metrics and feedback collection.
• A long-term plan for integrating DHS components and other intelligence agencies into the fusion center efforts.

Harman said she hoped the report marked the beginning of a relationship between DHS and state and local authorities that would include finalized baseline capabilities for fusion centers partially determined by states and localities and a clearly defined role for DHS in the centers.

“These reforms are critical, and as chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, I am reluctant to support any new funding for the department’s fusion center initiative until DHS adopts them,” she said in her prepared statement.

The department has more than 20 representatives at fusion centers and has committed to having 35 employees deployed to them by the end of the fiscal year. FBI officials already work in almost all centers.

“Working together – leveraging federal as well as state and local networks, moving relevant information and intelligence quickly, enabling rapid analytic and operational judgments – that is what this network of centers is all about,” said Charles Allen, DHS’ security undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, in his opening remarks at the conference, according to a joint press statement released today by the federal agencies sponsoring the conference events.

Allen has been under fire from Harman and the chairman of the full committee for OIA’s work with the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group (ITACG), whose creation was mandated in the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act last summer.

The lawmakers have criticized OIA for what they said was its initial unwillingness to fully include state and local partners through ITACG. The group gained initial operating capability Jan. 30 to help the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) produce federally coordinated terrorism information products for use by state, local and tribal law enforcement officials.

Lawmakers, however, noted at a March 13 hearing on sharing homeland security information that progress had been made with ITACG.

Still, Harman said at the conference, more progress is needed and the four police sheriffs who had been deployed to NCTC are not enough.

Harman added that the president’s 2009 budget request does not include money specifically to sustain the centers despite calls for it by the administration in its National Strategy for Information Sharing, which was released last year. The strategy placed fusion centers as the cornerstone for information sharing among the state, local and federal governments.

She also criticized this year’s DHS grant guidance for not supplying sufficient funding for federally funded intelligence contractors at the centers.

Harman called for the establishment of a National Consortium of Fusion Centers that would address sustainment funding, privacy and civil liberty issues; how state and local officials should partner with DHS for training; and how to meet information needs. She said that the consortium, which would be led by state and local authorities, would be a welcome voice on Capitol Hill.

“Once we get past the agendas, games and turf wars involving fusion centers and the ITACG, once we start working on solutions, we’ll soon look back on ourselves and ask ourselves, ‘What took so long?’ ” she said in her prepared remarks.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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