Fusion Centers: Leave ‘Em to the States

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The Senate debated the "Improving America's Security by Implementing UnfinishedRecommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007" last week.A similarly titled measure was the top priorityof House Speaker Pelosi, who pushed it through as part of theHouse's vaunted "First 100Hours" agenda. Now would be a good time to consider carefullythe proposed plans for the Department of Homeland Security to fundso-called "fusion centers."

Since the 9/11 attack, state and local governments haveestablished 46 centers to "fuse" information from criminalinvestigations, media reports, and other sources to search forpossible terrorist threats. As a federal report puts it, "States and localities havecreated and invested in fusion centers and charged those centerswith collecting, analyzing, and sharing terrorism information."Having several state and local centers - rather than a singlecentralized bureaucracy - collecting, analyzing, and acting upon"threat data" may help to overcome what Friedrich Hayek identifiedas the "knowledge problem" where specialized, localized knowledgeis lost the further up the chain of command decisions are made.

"Fusion centers" have to date largely been the result of abottom-up effort by state and local governments. But an implementation plan for a federal "Information SharingEnvironment" (ISE) issued by the President last November envisionsan integrated network of fusion centers working under HomelandSecurity and the Directorate of National Intelligence.

The value of this is uncertain. "Information-sharing" has beenthe post-9/11 mantra - but sharing information withoutconcentrating on which data is truly important will not makeAmericans safer. Focus is more important than "sharing." And atsome point mass information collection and data "fusion" becomes adomestic intelligence operation.

The 9/11 Commission held a hearing in 2004 to consider the question ofwhether the United States should create a domestic intelligenceagency like Britain's MI-5. Both the CIA and FBI directorsdenounced the creation of such a new agency. Robert Mueller calledit a "grave mistake." But a federally-funded system of fusioncenters would be a large step in that dangerous direction.

Title VII of the House 9/11 bill sets up a "Fusion and LawEnforcement Education and Teaming (FLEET) Grant Program" to fundfusion centers. The proposed FLEET program would centralize thesedistributed security offices, making the regional centerssubservient to federal priorities rather than driven by localconcerns. FLEET would throw more federal money at, and detail morefederal officers to, these operations - but that help would alsocome with strings attached.

As established in the House bill, the FLEET grants would be conditional upona number of requirements set by the Homeland Security Secretarysuch as eligibility requirements for law enforcement personneldetailed to the centers and hiring of personnel "representative ofa broad cross-section of local and tribal law enforcement agenciesand departments." The Homeland Security Secretary would have"general regulatory authority" to script, implement, and interpretthe FLEET program and could revoke or suspend funding to a localfusion center at any time upon a determination that the fusioncenter "is not in substantial compliance."

The Senate bill would create a more broad-based grant programwhich would give state governments money to fund fusion centers (aswell as other activities). The director of the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency would have the ability to pull funds for failureto "substantially comply." As in the House bill, these provisionswould make the fusion centers dependent on the priorities of theDepartment of Homeland Security rather than the priorities of stateand local law enforcement.

Placing fusion centers under the de facto direction of theHomeland Security Department would portend the creation of a newdomestic intelligence agency along the lines of MI-5. The Senatebill would explicitly blend elements of criminal and terrorismintelligence, raising the prospect of state and local undercoveragents working under the direction of DHS fusion-center liaisons.These operations would be outside the scope of traditional JusticeDepartment guidelines on infiltrating domestic groups, leadingexperts such ACLU's Tim Sparapani to worry, "we're setting upessentially a domestic intelligence agency." Without a guaranteethat such written guidelines could be enforced, the slippery slopeto spying on political dissidents - as the FBI's COINTELPRO didbefore such guidelines - is inevitable.

The fusion center program also would seem to require massiveamounts of one-way "data-sharing" from the state and locallaw-enforcement agencies to Homeland Security and the DNI, and notin the other direction. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) reported at arecent Congressional hearing that fusioncenters in California were having big trouble getting intelligencefrom the feds: "DHS has resisted allowing the state and local [sic]to get top security clearances for what the state believes areterritorial reasons... Intelligence that the [fusion center]director knows exists doesn't get sent to him. He's spent a gooddeal of time trying to get someone to pass him intel instead ofhaving it pushed away. DHS is generally overly protective andresistant to working cooperatively from what the director believesis a fear of becoming irrelevant."

But even as we learn that the feds aren't "sharing" muchinformation with their state and local partners, we get an idea ofthe kind of information the locals are expected to share with thefeds. Governor Mitt Romney set up a fusion center while serving in Massachusettsand his state's Homeland Security Strategy calls for operationscenters for such agencies as MBTA, swelling with federal grants forsurveillance cameras, to be linked to the fusion center. (Such aflood of visual data has not proven to be effective - after all,MI5 did not stop the 7/7 transit attacks in the world's mostsurveilled city, London.)

According to the ACLU, the Mass. Fusion Center was allocated$477,352 in 2004-05 to convert paper records to electronic form.The Boston Globe reports that the Fusion Center analysts "poreover... field reports filed by street cops, state troopers andfederal agents." As every single fusion centers becomes moreintegrated into the federal Information Sharing Environment,sometimes sensitive data will pour into federal databases. In lightof poor electronic security practices by the federal government, itis important to carefully balance the costs and benefits oftransferring all of these local law-enforcement paper records intofederal electronic databases. And for all its state's leadership ininformation sharing, Boston recently shut down much of the city andexploded oversized LiteBrites placed around the city in a guerilla marketingcampaign. This is not a model of terrorism intelligence inuse.

The federal government already has a wide array of resources andagencies to analyze terror threats and decide how to act upon them.Further federal incursion into decentralized, state- andlocality-based law-enforcement experience and expertise would be amistake. If we need fusion centers at all - and it's not clear thatwe do - they should rise or fall on the merits that state and localleaders find in them.

Jim Harper

Jim Harper is director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit www.cato.org/tech/tk-index.html.