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Fusion Centers

Author: Eben Kaplan
February 22, 2007

Introduction

In the early morning hours of September 9, 2001, a Maryland State Trooper made a routine traffic stop, pulling over a car headed north on I-95 and issuing a speeding ticket. Two days later, the driver of that car, Ziad Jarrah was one of four hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in western Pennsylvania. The officer who issued the speeding ticket had no idea that Jarrah was on a CIA watch list. If he had, experts say it is possible he might have prevented, or at least disrupted, the worst terrorist attack in history.

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About two years later, Maryland opened its Coordination and Analysis Center, an intelligence “fusion center" designed to pool and analyze information from federal, state, and local sources, in an effort to get vital information to the police officers who every day patrol the home front of the “war on terror.” Now in forty-two states plus the District of Columbia, fusion centers represent an important development in state-level homeland security initiatives. In some cases, police departments have even changed how they approach their work, emphasizing intelligence collection and sharing. Though experts applaud efforts to have better informed police officers, some civil libertarians worry about the collection and use of such information.

How Fusion Centers Work

Though fusion centers vary from state to state, most contain similar elements, including members of state law enforcement, public health, social services, public safety, and public works organizations. Increasingly, federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms station representatives at state-level fusion centers.

State and federal representatives input into a fusion center's database a broad spectrum of information, including the location and capabilities of area hospitals, details from calls to the state's 911 emergency hotline, and names from federal terrorism watch lists. This data pool is then drawn on to form a clearer picture of threats facing each state. In addition, it helps inform police investigations, contingency planning, and emergency response.

“If we learn about a threat only when it becomes imminent, then it is too late.”

Experts say putting this information at the fingertips of local law enforcement—who are likelier than federal authorities to come across aspiring terrorists on U.S. soil—transforms police officers from first responders into “first preventers.” The idea is that the next time a would-be terrorist on a government watch list is pulled over for speeding, the officer at the scene will have the information he needs.

Placing federal representatives alongside local officials also helps to ensure more timely delivery of information. In the past, state and local authorities often received warnings only in times of immediate danger. As Cathy L. Lanier, Washington D.C.'s acting police chief, told a recent Senate hearing (PDF), “If we learn about a threat only when it becomes imminent, then it is too late.”

Federal Support

The rise of fusion centers, which accelerated greatly from 2004 to 2005, came about in part because the federal government placed much of the responsibility for homeland security on state governments. Many states view fusion centers as a necessary tool for meeting this charge. The U.S. government's response has been enthusiastic: “Fusion centers will be a key conduit for sharing federal information and intelligence down to the local level,” says DHS Chief Intelligence Officer Charles E. Allen.

To help states create intelligence hubs that function properly, DHS teamed with the Department of Justice to author a set of guidelines (PDF) for establishing and operating fusion centers. Since 2001, the federal government has provided some $380 million to help fund fusion centers that meet the guidelines, though in recent years only sixteen states received such assistance (PDF).

The federal government has even adopted the fusion-center model for its own purposes. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), established in 2004, tracks the terrorist threat by pooling representatives from the various national intelligence agencies.

Intelligence-Led Policing

Unlike the NCTC, state-level fusion centers do not focus exclusively on the terrorist threat. “Above and beyond counterterrorism,” says New Jersey's fusion center Director Richard W. Kelly, “we deal with all crimes, day in and day out—the gang violence, the shootings, the drugs—all the criminal issues that affect our citizens.”

“Intelligence-led policing proves equally effective in both traditional criminal investigations and counterterrorism investigations.”

To meet these challenges, state and local law enforcement have placed increasing emphasis on their own intelligence operations. Intelligence-led policing, as it is called, proves equally effective in both traditional criminal investigations and counterterrorism investigations. In fact, experts say the line between criminal activity and terrorist activity has blurred, particularly as terrorists increasingly rely on crime to finance their activities. Thorough investigations of every day crimes can occasionally lead to larger conspiracies, as was the case in Los Angeles in 2005 when police searching the home of gas-station robbers uncovered a larger plot to bomb synagogues.

Addressing All Hazards

Just as investigators can apply similar competencies to both counterterrorism and ordinary crimes, the response to a terrorist attack requires the same resources as industrial accidents or natural disasters. Thus, states have taken an “all hazards” approach to emergency response, bolstering the healthcare and first responder systems needed to mitigate any disaster, regardless of the cause.

New Jersey uses its fusion center not only to gather and disseminate intelligence, but also as the primary statewide operations center in an emergency. In the event of a school shooting, for instance, New Jersey's Regional Operations Intelligence Center could facilitate a seamless flow of information between the various agencies responding. The center's support room—a hundred-seat arena evocative of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston—could simultaneously project live aerial footage, building blueprints, and hospital locations onto its thirty-two-foot screen. Dispatchers can then easily pass this information along to responders on the scene.

Michigan is the only other state to use its fusion center for emergency response, but it also maintains a separate emergency operations center. Richard Cañas, director of New Jersey's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, suggests using fusion centers in emergency response “may be a concept that could be a model for other states.”

Avoiding Information Overload

A common concern when pooling intelligence is the potential to overwhelm the analysts charged with processing it. “This is one of the big challenges of intelligence,” explains R.P. Eddy, executive director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Policing Terrorism. Fusion centers are particularly prone to information overload, he says, though most employ strategies to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

One strategy involves funneling information to the proper analysts. For instance, information on gang arrests would be reviewed by an expert specializing in gangs, while a tip about a dirty bomb would go to a nuclear analyst. “These folks are trained researchers,” explains Kelly, “They know what to look for when they stick a ladle into that great stream of information.”

Another important safeguard against information overload is establishing what Eddy calls a baseline, that is, a sense of what activity is normal. A call to a tip line reporting suspicious activity on subway tracks, for example, might turn out to be maintenance workers. Tip line operators who know how to identify these workers can help prevent erroneous reports.

Computer programs also play a limited role in information analysis. Most of this, Eddy says, involves “link analysis,” a process that can provide analysts with additional information. If police observe a car casing a high profile target, they can run a link analysis to determine whether a car of the same make and model was mentioned in any other police reports.

Civil Liberties Concerns

Though fusion centers generally receive praise for fostering interagency cooperation and open information sharing, some advocacy groups worry that the information they gather might be used to violate civil liberties. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says pooling information on U.S. citizens who aren't suspected of a crime runs afoul of the Federal Privacy Act of 1974. Some states have even applied for exemptions from constraints on the kind of information they can collect, which Rotenberg calls “a purposeful attempt to suspend federal privacy laws.”

In 2004, police stopped a sports utility vehicle on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge after they saw a veiled woman in the passenger seat using a video camera. The officers at the scene learned from Maryland's fusion center that the driver was wanted as a material witness in an ongoing case in Chicago involving Hamas, and a prosecutor quickly issued an arrest warrant. However, the warrant expired and the driver was never charged. His wife, the camera operator, said she was taping the bay on her way back from the beach. While some officials cite the incident as an example of a situation where the system worked, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Washington Post, “It was regarded in the community as just a case of overreaction to seeing somebody in a head scarf videotaping.”

Regardless of how they view the Chesapeake Bay Bridge incident, most officials acknowledge the importance of safeguarding civil liberties. New Jersey Governor John Corzine concedes the persistent potential for conflict between intelligence gathering and citizens' rights, but says “I don't believe that we've created a system that will avoid the checks and balances that allow us to protect civil liberties.”

These checks and balances, Eddy says, require good leadership and proper training. “They offer the capacity to abuse the information they collect if not well built, not well managed, and not well manned.”

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