Connecting the pieces
In 2004, a man and his wife drove an SUV across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland, seeming to enjoy the scenery like countless other travelers. The wife was even videotaping as the couple crossed the 4.2-mile span. But, something was odd.
According to published reports and court documents, the veiled woman concentrated the camera on important aspects of the bridge’s construction, such as cables and supports, leading state police officers to stop them for questioning. A call to the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center — one of the more than three dozen state “intelligence fusion centers” nationwide — quickly determined that the driver, Ismail Elbarasse, was wanted as a material witness for conspiring with Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization.
Officials say incidents like that prove the effectiveness of the nation’s relatively new intelligence fusion centers. Without the centers, officers might not have made the terror connection with Elbarasse, who is a U.S. citizen and Virginia resident. Although Islamic advocacy groups criticized the officers for what they perceived was racial profiling, and Elbarasse was eventually dropped from the case, one homeland security official told The Washington Post that the incident was “an example of how you had state, local and federal [agencies] all working together.”
In the post-9/11 era, government officials are touting fusion centers as a much-needed way to communicate and share information across jurisdictional lines. But, because the concept is so new and has widely varying structures, cities and counties may not yet be plugged into one or may not have clear guidelines on how to join.
Upping the intelligence quotient
Since Sept. 11, 2001, several legislative and policy initiatives have paved the way for creating fusion centers. In addition to the Patriot Act of 2001, which called for increased information sharing, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative formed an intelligence working group, which published the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan in 2003. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which directed the executive branch to create an “information sharing environment,” further enhanced DOJ’s efforts. Then, the final report of an intelligence working group formed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Homeland Security Advisory Council recommended that each state establish a multidisciplinary fusion center.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), fusion centers are central locations where local, state and federal officials work closely together to receive, integrate and analyze information and intelligence, and to coordinate security measures. To date, fusion centers have been created or are under development in 42 states, absent only from a handful in the nation’s mid-section and Rocky Mountain West. DHS has allocated more than $380 million to state and local governments to support the centers.
Although fusion centers vary greatly, the Washington-based National Governors Association (NGA) identified some common elements in a 2005 survey. Most centers, NGA reports, include staff from multiple state, local and federal agencies; maintain regular communication with field officers and policy makers; and are multi-purpose in scope, focusing on terrorism prevention and general crime fighting.
Yet, fusion centers also have great disparities, NGA found. Some centers have only analytical roles, while others also have the resources to act on intelligence they receive. Some centers have a regional outlook, such as the Arizona-based Rocky Mountain Information Network Intelligence Center and similar centers focused on New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast, the Midwest and the West Coast. Others have a vertical structure, connecting states to local and federal agencies, but not to other states. Some are contained within federally led joint terrorism task forces, while others are independent.
Last summer, DHS began placing analysts from its Office of Intelligence and Analysis alongside state and local authorities at fusion centers in New York City; Los Angeles; Reisterstown, Md.; and Baton Rouge, La. DHS plans to have personnel at all of the major centers by the end of fiscal year 2008. “One of the department’s top priorities is to work with state and local authorities and share information that helps to connect the dots on emerging threats,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a 2006 statement. “There is no more effective way to connect the dots than by having our personnel sitting in a chair next to their local counterparts, providing them with information they need to make timely and informed decisions on how best to protect their community.”
Making it work
To help institutionalize best practices for fusion center operation, DHS and DOJ have jointly published guidelines for their design. And in 2005, NGA’s Center for Best Practices published an issue brief on creating fusion centers, which focuses on centers in Arizona, Illinois and Georgia, and also offers guidance on setting up such a center. Located in the Phoenix outskirts, the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC), for example, employs about 200 people from DHS and state and local police and fire departments. It also includes the local FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, which moved there from its own downtown field office to be more accessible.
In 2006, a drug bust in Phoenix uncovered a suspicious vial of white powder — later determined to be the same explosive substance that “shoe bomber” Richard Reid tried to detonate on a plane. At ACTIC, a local police official only had to walk across the hall of the facility to give the information to his FBI colleagues to analyze.
Other states and localities operate in similar ways. Established in 2003, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC) was one of the first fusion centers to be established after the Sept. 11 attacks. Located in a nondescript office building with no identifying information on the door, the fusion center employs representatives from two dozen local, state and federal agencies. MCAC’s director, Captain Charles Rapp, is a detailee from the Baltimore County Police Department, and his two predecessors also were on loan from local law enforcement agencies. “MCAC can be the center of Maryland’s intelligence community,” Rapp says. “The center has become a national model for intelligence gathering and sharing.”
About 50 people work at MCAC, analyzing tips about suspicious activity and entering information in various networks to determine whether it relates to a current investigation. The center is plugged into several networks, including the Joint Regional Information Exchange System (JRIES), which focuses on counterterrorism information shared by local and state law enforcement and the Department of Defense; the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), which incorporated JRIES and expanded its community of users beyond law enforcement and intelligence; and the Regional Information Sharing System (RISS) program, which features six regional centers that share intelligence and coordinate cross-jurisdictional efforts.
Local governments are increasingly taking their cues from larger statewide efforts. The San Antonio Police Department, for example, has launched a fusion center that relies on radio interoperability and a computer database to foster information sharing between nearly two dozen smaller law enforcement agencies, including suburban municipalities, universities and school districts. All members can access the complete reports generated by San Antonio criminal investigators, without having to go through bureaucratic red tape or be shuffled from one office to another.
Although not yet affiliated with the Texas statewide fusion center, the San Antonio fusion center eventually may be able to send pertinent information up the chain to state and federal authorities, as well. “In addition to sharing resources with smaller law enforcement agencies, in return, we can tap into their resources,” says San Antonio Police Chief William McManus. “Working in partnership with these jurisdictions can only help us in our effort to solve and prevent crime, so it’s a win-win situation.”
Filling in the blanks
As government officials seek to establish more fusion centers, potential impediments to success still exist. Even in an increasingly open environment, local government officials may lack the necessary security clearances to obtain classified information, and they may run into bureaucratic resistance to sharing information. Furthermore, the infrastructure for information sharing — computers, supporting software and training — takes time and resources to implement.
Local governments also are at risk of being under-represented in fusion centers. Last fall, MCAC’s Rapp testified before a Congressional hearing that information analyzed at fusion centers needs to flow in both directions. “Federal agencies need to recognize that local and state agencies have valuable information that could benefit the overall knowledge base,” he said. “Information developed at the local level can be analyzed and vetted best by those who are familiar with the communities where the information originates.”
That also was a concern at a March hearing on fusion centers and civil liberties, held by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee. Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., chair of the subcommittee, opened the hearing by noting that the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group (ITAC — now called the Federal Coordinating Group), a new DHS initiative to streamline classification categories that can inhibit information distribution, only had one local representative.
“How this group, which is supposed to be creating unclassified products for state, local and tribal law enforcement officers across the country, is going to be effective with only one local law enforcement person on staff is beyond me,” Harman said. “I’m disappointed that DHS — the agency that is supposed to be advocating for state and locals — has not worked harder to expand the number of local players at the ITAC table.” Harman also raised concerns about the fact that many fusion centers, like MCAC, are staffed with detailees from other agencies that could pull in staff from the field if they face budget cuts.
Finally, a primary issue for fusion centers is protecting civil liberties. Some groups have raised concerns that fusion centers could monitor innocent people engaged in lawful activities and collect personal, sociodemographic or political information that might not be related to an investigation. Ismail Elbarasse may have been connected to a terrorist organization, but the next family crossing the Bay Bridge with a video camera could just be out for a joyride.
To address that concern, state and federal officials are working to ensure that fusion centers comply with federal regulation 28 CFR Part 23 that governs federally funded, multi-jurisdictional criminal intelligence systems. The regulation stipulates, in part, that systems such as fusion centers may collect information only if there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and that they cannot collect or maintain information on the political, religious or social views of individuals or groups if they are not related to criminality.
At the March subcommittee hearing, Charles Allen, DHS’s chief intelligence officer, reported on the status of the nation’s fusion centers and promised that Americans’ civil liberties would be protected. “We are working to include additional people from state and local governments [in the ITAC/Federal Coordinating Group],” he said. “We want local people there to help our federal analysts understand what’s important…These people are going to be very crucial to our performance.”
Kim A. O’Connell is an Arlington, Va.-based freelance writer.