Fusion Centers facing growing pains

By Meg Beasley
Federal News Radio

The federal government is not adapting fast enough to the ever-changing threats to homeland security.

From cyber threats to homegrown terrorism, the challenges law enforcement face today are vastly different from those of the past.

Bart Johnson, principle deputy undersecretary of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, said the recent rise in domestic terrorism isn’t an anomaly – it’s the new norm – and security agencies need to operate accordingly. He said federal agencies can’t handle the spike in homegrown terrorism alone; that they must partner with state, local and tribal law enforcement groups.


In order to facilitate collaboration, the 2007 National Strategy for Information Sharing called for the establishment of fusion centers. The centers serve as focal points for collecting, analyzing and sharing threat related information between federal and state, local and tribal partners.

“This is the new plan A,” said Johnson during a speech Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is no plan B and there shouldn’t be a plan B. This national network of fusion centers needs to be enhanced, it needs to continue to provide the value-added, and it certainly needs to be institutionalized.”

He said that while the fusion centers are taking hold – there are 72 across the country – there is much progress to be made.

Fusion center directors outlined four critical operational capabilities (COPs) at their national conference last year. As a baseline, all fusion centers should be able to receive, analyze, disseminate and gather threat information. Officials conducted a baseline review of the centers in September.

Kerry Sleeper, a senior advisor in the Office of the Program Manager, () Information Sharing Environment, said input from federal agents and local representatives revealed that everyone thinks fusion centers should be community focused.

“The fusion centers must continue to demonstrate relevancy to their customers – those people receiving information from the fusion centers – whether that’s private sector, local law enforcement or state law enforcement,” Sleeper said. “They must reflect the mission prioritization of their owners. These fusion centers are owned by state and local entities.”

In many ways, the premise of fusion centers is the slogan, “if you see something, say something.” They are meant to guide members of a community about potential threats – whether it is a terror plot or a new drug fad – as well as give them a place to report suspicious activities they witness.

Johnson said putting together many little, seemingly unimportant pieces of intelligence is the best way to uncover many threats.

The official review also showed the centers are struggling with fiscal constraints and want enhanced federal funding. Sleeper said it is difficult to build an organization on uncertain, annually approved grants. Most fusion centers receive funding from local governments and DHS. Some that work closely with the FBI share costs with that agency.

The degree to which the fusion centers actually foster collaboration with federal intelligence agencies like the FBI is unclear.

Elaine Cummings, chief information sharing officer at the FBI, said her agency knows collaboration between federal agencies and state, local and tribal authorities often makes the nation safer. But she added that the situation isn’t always that simple.

“Fusion centers offer value to the FBI but they also have their own set of priorities that don’t always match with the FBI,” Cummings said. “Where the fusion centers focus on terrorism, their mission is also our mission. As they expand to all crimes there becomes less and less unity. There are overlaps – at the same time we have to recognize there are differences and that can make it very complicated.”

Cummings said much of the focus on the federal side is developing high-level strategies and standardized approaches to guide collaboration with fusion centers nationwide.

Matthew Drake, FBI supervisory special agent and deputy director of the Northern Virginia Regional Intelligence Center, said state, local and tribal authorities are focused largely on the nuts-and-bolts of implementing the COPs.

He said budget constraints, technological issues and a shortage of well trained personnel are challenges at his center. But as a former federal agent now working at the state and local level, Drake said the biggest struggle he sees is between cultures.

“The relationships and the trust issue, that’s what it all comes down to,” Drake said. “We have different experiences we bring to the table, different priorities – that’s never going to change. The FBI, DHS, we’re never going to align our priorities with the state and county police department, we can’t. We have different missions ultimately, and different ways of going about it. But we have to find ways to make that work.”

Drake said he hears talk about fusion center success stories, about cases solved or threats intercepted. He said his center has those, too. But “typically, a success story for me is I go home happy because Bill and Steve didn’t punch each other in that meeting,” Drake said jokingly. “That’s what it comes down to sometimes.”

He said computers are nice but the most important tool at his fusion center is the conference room.

DHS’s Johnson said he is pleased with the overall progress fusion centers have made but recognizes that hurdles remain. He said the biggest three challenges moving forward are avoiding complacency, dealing with tight budgets and building trust.

Johnson said it is all too easy for agencies to fall back into old patterns of keeping information to themselves instead of remembering that reporting any suspicious behavior might contribute to a larger picture.

He said that while fiscal constraints can be difficult, he thinks having fewer resources might encourage even more sharing among agencies as some offices are combined.

And Johnson agreed with Drake that the key to maximizing the potential of fusion centers will be strengthening the cooperation between federal and state, local and tribal organizations.

“We need to continue to build the trust and the relationship,” Johnson said. “I still don’t believe state, local and tribal capabilities, assets and expertise are truly understood within the intelligence community. Not through any nefarious reasons, just because of lack of awareness.”

Thursday’s conference came ahead of the 5th annual National Fusion Center Conference March 15 – 17 in Denver. The event is sponsored by several federal agencies including DHS, FBI, ATF and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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