Four potential risks to intelligence fusion centers

The more than 40 local and regional intelligence fusion centers created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to improve information sharing between the federal government and state, local and tribal law enforcement, are failing to accomplish their mission of protecting the homeland.

The fusion centers were supposed to be a vehicle whereby information would be disseminated closer to the people who need it most: the state and local law enforcement and emergency personnel who will be the first to respond to a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

But, according to a new report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service and obtained by the Federation of American Scientists, “little ‘true fusion,’ or analysis of disparate data sources, identification of intelligence gaps, and pro-active collection of intelligence against those gaps which could contribute to prevention is occurring.”

The report is also worth reading for its extensive background on intelligence fusion centers and the role of intelligence in modern law enforcement.


“Some homeland security observers suggest that the rush to establish and enhance state fusion centers is a post-9/11 reaction and that over time some of the centers may dissolve,” the report says. Were the fusion centers created too quickly so that the government could look like it was doing something?

Over time, fusion centers could be consolidated, especially if there isn’t another terrorist attack or major natural disaster for them to work on, if the centers are duplicating each other’s work, or if the risks to given geographic areas change.


“If the United States is not the target of a successful terrorist attack, homeland security funding, arguably, may decrease,” the report warns.

“It is unclear how fusion centers would fare in such a situation.” Some fusion centers could close entirely, while others might continue operating, albeit with reduced staffing and capacity.

As it stands, the fusion centers have received a total of $380 million in start-up funding, but many of them have no further federal funding allocated to them, the report says.

Civil Liberties

“Arguments against fusion centers often center around the idea that such centers are essentially pre-emptive law enforcement — that intelligence gathered in the absence of a criminal predicate is unlawfully gathered intelligence.”

The farther away from a criminal investigation law enforcement gets, the higher the risk of a civil liberties violation. This is a difficult balancing act. A group of U.S. citizens speaking freely and associating with one another might be entirely innocent of criminal or terrorist intent, or they could be plotting the next attack. How can government preserve the rights of the former while stopping the latter from carrying out their plans?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “We’re setting up essentially a domestic intelligence agency, and we’re doing it without having a full debate about the risks to privacy and civil liberties.” Furthermore, the ACLU is also concerned with having DHS perform a coordinating role at the federal level with respect to these centers. “We are granting extraordinary powers to one agency, without adequate transparency or safeguards, that hasn’t shown Congress that it’s ready for the job.” — Fusion Centers: Issues and Options for Congress (PDF)

Underlying Philosophy

“Is the country any safer or more prepared with fusion centers or have we created a false sense of security?” asks the report.

As the report notes, “numerous fusion center officials claim that although their center receives a substantial amount of information from federal agencies, they never seem to get the ‘right information’ or receive it in an efficient manner.”

The fusion centers are further hampered by the way they are structured, according to the CRS. They have little private sector input, they encounter difficulties with classification of information, and in many cases they have limited access to relevant state information databases.

That access is uneven. The report said that one state center had access to only 30 percent of the pertinent databases, while officials at a different state’s center said they would soon obtain access to 92 percent of such databases. — Government Computer News

In addition, state and local law enforcement agencies are using the fusion centers for garden variety criminal intelligence, as opposed to counterterrorism.

“First, leadership at several fusion centers interviewed for this report noted they believed the country was moving towards an all-crimes and/or all-hazards model and they felt they needed to move with the changing tide.”

The report further noted that “most police departments and public sector agencies are more concerned with issues such as gangs, narcotics, and street crime, which are more relevant to their communities.” And, broadening their focus allowed the fusion centers to obtain more money.

Worst of all, the fusion centers don’t seem to have been effective at either their broad, all-crimes, all-hazards mission, or at the narrow counterterrorism mission.

“It is unclear if a single fusion center has successfully adopted a truly proactive prevention approach to information analysis and sharing,’ the report said. “No state and its local jurisdictions appear to have fully adopted the intelligence cycle.”