When terrorist suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev set off two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April, those immersed in the science of homeland security pondered a handful of obvious questions: What had authorities done to secure the route, and was securing all 26.2 miles of the course even possible? Had local law enforcement picked up any chatter related to a possible attack in advance of the incident? And were the brothers homegrown terrorists or connected with some foreign group?

Those are the kinds of questions that routinely get examined though an extensive intelligence infrastructure in place in the form of nationwide “fusion centers.” They were set up by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as a way to improve information gathering and intelligence surveillance among the country’s various law enforcement agencies.

But fusion centers are controversial. Questions have been raised about how effective they are in securing the nation from both homegrown and outside threats, and in their approach to the delicate business of intelligence gathering.

Boston isn’t new to the debate about the efficacy or the tactics of fusion centers. In March 2007, Boston police took it upon themselves to monitor an antiwar event at a local church, taking careful notes and later filing an intelligence report that described the gathering as a criminal act involving extremists. When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) later obtained a copy of the report and published the information, the public was astonished and outraged to learn of the surveillance, which was undertaken by Boston’s fusion center, known as the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC.

The ACLU accused the Boston police of trying to suppress legitimate constitutionally protected speech in a broad-based effort at thwarting terrorism. The police responded by saying the report should have been purged from its records, but a glitch in the computer system failed to remove it. The incident hardly served to instill great confidence among citizens in either the mission or the tactics of BRIC.

But there are other cases of fusion centers performing exactly the functions they were set up to execute. Two years after the Boston church surveillance incident, law enforcement authorities in North Carolina shut down a terrorist group led by an American named Daniel Patrick Boyd, who had trained in militant camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 1990s. The group had provided money and transportation to help terrorists overseas while amassing a large cache of weapons before the FBI and local police arrested Boyd and seven members of his group. Boyd is now serving an 18-year sentence. The intelligence that led to the breakup of his domestic terrorist organization was produced by the North Carolina Information Sharing & Analysis Center.

The different outcomes at the fusion centers in North Carolina and Boston reflect their mixed record overall. Conceived in 2004, the centers were set up to be state-run information networks that would have guidance and support from the federal government and operate in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies in the war on terrorism. Today, they have become centers that communicate and analyze “all crimes” and “all hazards.” The result is more confusion than fusion. The centers, critics charge, have grown unwieldy and wasteful. Meanwhile, the ACLU complains that the lack of oversight has led to far more serious problems, such as abuses of privacy and civil liberties.

Fusion centers are not without their supporters. They argue that in a post-9/11 world, the U.S. needs more information and intelligence sharing between federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, not less. They also point out that preventing crime and terrorism will always be a difficult outcome to measure.

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.