In the aftermath following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, federal agencies and law enforcement drove home the need for increased information sharing and improved performance throughout the intelligence community. The information failures that plagued the system previous to the attacks demonstrated the consequences of division during a crisis. Had well-run fusion centers been available at the start of this century, the deadliest terrorist attack in history would have resulted in a different outcome.
Fusion centers designed for a post-9/11 world
The success of any homeland security strategy relies on the ability of government agencies at all levels to communicate and cooperate effectively. An October 2007 report by the National Security Council states the purpose of fusion centers is to develop a collective of national networks that promotes the adoption of vertical information sharing between federal, state and local agencies. These centers intend to fix the fragmented approach experienced in the pre-9/11 world.
Since 2003, the Department of Homeland Security created 77 fusion centers. State and local entities own and operate the centers, with support from federal agencies through personnel, training, technology, and grants. Information extends beyond each physical location into a secure computing cloud, accessed by agents with sufficient security clearance, allowing them to obtain sensitive but unclassified data and analysis.
Although the mission of vertical transparency remains unchanged, the emergence of fusion centers brings new opportunities and challenges. Directors continue to improve their policies, clarify priorities, and establish baseline operational standards.
During the 2010 National Fusion Center Conference, directors identified critical operational capabilities necessary to support an integrated network for sharing time-sensitive information in crisis response. These capabilities include receiving classified information, integrating local contexts into risk assessment analysis, and disseminating threat information to increase scrutiny of conclusions.
Critics question fusion center effectiveness
Fusion centers are young for an organization, less than a decade old and still maturing. Early struggles are expected, especially given the huge cultural shift required of participating agencies to support transparency across jurisdictions.
In its report to Congress in 2013, the Government Accountability Office found that DHS leadership did not adequately support the mission of fusion centers. While the flow of information has clearly increased since the attacks of 9/11, data sharing does not always equate to better intelligence. The department is ultimately responsible for creating effective field office structures and understanding new cooperative processes often obscured from the central office’s view. The GAO identified opportunities to expand and enhance visibility over information sources, even as senior DHS officials charged with overseeing fusion centers adjust to existing policies.
Criticisms from other corners accuse authorities of policy shopping to maximize information gathered through fusion centers. By taking advantage of legislative differences between different levels of government, agency leaders are able to justify controversial actions, such as private and military personnel participating in the surveillance of U.S. citizens. Some see fusion centers as either redundant or reactionary, resulting in a flood of data drowning small field offices. The DHS Privacy Office also identified a number of risks to privacy from excessive secrecy and mission creep.
Perhaps the most damning criticism is that fusion centers just aren’t finding useful information. The nature of the enterprise, however, does not lend itself to promoting victories, and metrics used in evaluating fusion centers are limited to measuring capacity and capability, not success or failure of the network. The biggest challenge the program faces may be its ability to stay the course and allow directors to overcome any shortcomings. Although state and federal funding is never guaranteed, many agencies experience real benefit from fusion centers and would support long-term investment.
Inter-agency cooperation brings cultural change
The creation of fusion centers benefits intelligence and law enforcement communities more than meets the eye. Beyond the intended purpose of federal-to-local cooperation, fusion centers offer new means of ensuring public safety.
One emergent trend is the increase in horizontal information sharing between departments. Due to the presence of state fusion centers, a new inter-agency behavior evolved that helped bridge the gap across jurisdictions. It is more common for departments to connect with each other directly rather than wait for public safety information relevant to their location to be aggregated and sent down the pipeline.
While fusion centers assist federal activities by incorporating data gathered at the local level, state and local operations are afforded a louder voice in national strategy and policy. Most people of interest to federal agents are likely to appear first in traffic violation databases maintained by local offices, giving those departments an important role in homeland security. The increased interaction surrounding fusion centers also propagates innovation and best practices for real-time crime centers. The lessons learned through experiences with emergency operations and fusion centers become new practices for urban officers.
How the centers deal with the growing cybersecurity threat is a test looming on the horizon. Decisions about whether to train new skill sets or seek outside expertise, and whether these threats fit in state charters at all, will impact the resource needs and expectations for the program.
The introduction of fusion centers cannot instantly overcome decades of behavior. Turf battles between agencies and departments still exist. Fears surrounding information sharing continue to negatively impact both power and budget. If the strengths and weaknesses of fusion centers are well understood, however, increasing the number of eyes watching and analyzing data at all levels of public safety will eventually reshape the culture.
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