Focus on Fusion Centers

The Department of Homeland Security has produced a new “Concept of Operations” (pdf) to define how the Department will support and oversee the network of dozens of “fusion centers” that have been established around the country.  The fusion centers are intended to promote a collaborative approach among federal, state and local authorities to combating terrorism and criminal activity.

Preparation of the new DHS Concept of Operations was required by the “9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007.”  The document has not been formally released, but a copy was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Interaction with State and Local Fusion Centers: Concept of Operations,” December 2008.

The Concept of Operations is programmatic rather than descriptive.  It explains the intended operation of the fusion center system, not how (or whether) it works in practice– a topic on which there are conflicting views.

“Despite their lofty claims, federal officials are misleading you if they have caused you to believe that fusion centers are actually ‘fusing’ any data, that interdepartmental systems in DOJ, DHS, or DOD are integrating anything but inconsequential records, or that nationwide networks like N-DEX and HSDN are systematically transporting data that is being used by state and local police departments,” said former U.S. Attorney John McKay (pdf) at a September 24, 2008 hearing.  “If you accept these assertions at face value, you will be misinformed.”

From another perspective, there is “not enough terrorism” to justify the creation and maintenance of the fusion center system. “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,” according to Sacramento police officer Milton Nenneman.  (“Fusion Centers Face ‘Insufficient’ Terrorist Activity,” Secrecy News, June 3, 2008).

Others take a more favorable view.  “I would say that fusion centers have emerged as what may be the most significant change in the structural landscape of criminal intelligence in at least the past 25 years,” said Russell M. Porter (pdf), director of the Iowa State fusion center.

Some of these issues were addressed in a recently published Senate hearing record.  See “Focus on Fusion Centers: A Progress Report,” hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, April 17, 2008.

The most widely shared official view seems to be that fusion centers offer significant advantages, especially to law enforcement agencies, but that they are still far from fulfilling their potential or optimizing their utility.  A similar view was expressed recently by the DHS Office of Inspector General in “DHS’ Role in State and Local Fusion Centers is Evolving” (pdf), December 10, 2008.

The ACLU discussed its view of “What’s Wrong with Fusion Centers” in December 2007 (with a July 2008 update).

The Electronic Privacy Information Center provides related background, resources and critical commentary here.