Fusion Centers Face “Insufficient” Terrorist Activity

Fusion centers are collaborative law enforcement and intelligence organizations that were established all over the country after 9/11 to share intelligence and counterterrorism information. But in the absence of a widespread domestic terrorist threat, they have not consistently demonstrated their value, according to a recent study.

“Fusion centers emerged almost spontaneously in response to a need by state and local law enforcement for useful and usable intelligence related to the evolving terrorist threat,” observed Milton Nenneman, a Sacramento police officer, in a master’s thesis (pdf) based on a survey of California fusion centers.

But the terrorist threat has turned out to be “insufficient” to justify or sustain the new fusion centers.

“There is, more often than not, insufficient purely ‘terrorist’ activity to support a multi-jurisdictional and multi-governmental level fusion center that exclusively processes terrorist activity,” Lt. Nenneman wrote.

As a result, “Fusion centers must consider analyzing or processing other criminal activity, in addition to terrorist activity, in order to maintain the skills and interest of the analysts, as well as the participation and data collection of the emergency responder community.”

Basic questions regarding who the fusion centers are supposed to serve and exactly what they are supposed to produce often lack satisfactory answers, Lt. Nenneman reported.

While there is little consensus about the precise mission or function of fusion centers, which vary widely, “the majority of fusion centers operate exclusively in an analytical capacity rather than as having any response or operational capacity.”

“It would seem prudent to make a concerted effort to seek out the emergency responder administrators and elected officials to given them regular threat assessments and situational awareness briefings to demonstrate the value and capability of the unit,” he suggested.

See “An Examination of State and Local Fusion Centers and Data Collection Methods” by Milton W. Nenneman, Naval Postgraduate School, March 2008.

Related issues were examined by the Congressional Research Service in “Fusion Centers: Issues and Options for Congress” (pdf), updated January 18, 2008.

See also “Homeland Security: Federal Efforts Are Helping to Alleviate Some Challenges Encountered by State and Local Information Fusion Centers” (pdf), Government Accountability Office Report No. GAO-08-35, October 2007.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center recently won disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of records documenting federal efforts to curtail public disclosure of fusion center information in the state of Virginia.