Fusion centers are evolving into horizontal communication hubs between states.
Denial-of-service telephone attacks on 911 centers in Louisiana aren’t typically the sort of thing to make alarm bells ring in Kentucky. Yet that’s exactly what happened in one recent episode, when bad actors started blocking emergency calls and analysts in Louisiana’s fusion center quickly passed the word to their counterparts in Kentucky. “We got that out to our 911 centers in the next hour, and almost right away we started hearing that our 911 centers were experiencing the same thing,” said Mary Cope Halmhuber, director of the Kentucky Intelligence Fusion Center.
That swift heads-up from a neighboring state helped the Kentucky fusion center contain what might have been a big problem. This kind of interstate cooperation typifies today’s emerging fusion center. Initially formed after 9/11 as a means to coordinate local, state and federal intelligence, fusion centers have increasingly become hubs for cooperative information-sharing, not just vertically — from states up to federal authorities — but also horizontally, with data moving between states.
While some interstate efforts have existed from the start, lately there has been a push to formalize these ties. This is most visible in the 2014-2017 National Strategy for the National Network of Fusion Centers, published recently by a collaborative of interested groups.
Fusion centers came into being as a way to ensure that security information could percolate up from the local level to federal authorities. At the same time, these centers have broken ground in their ability to share information from state to state — a trend that has become increasingly visible.
Consider a few recent accomplishments, as reported in the Department of Homeland Security 2013 Fusion Center Success Stories:
Each of these cases highlights the growing importance fusion center directors are placing on state-to-state cooperation. While sharing vertically — from the state up to federal agencies — has proven useful, it turns out that a lateral move may have equal if not greater value.
“What we are finding more and more is that the horizontal aspect of fusion centers, with centers sharing among themselves, makes all this information even more powerful,” said W. Ross Ashley III, executive director of the National Fusion Center Association.
While a National Network of Fusion Centers has always existed, it has generally been a loose affiliation with few specific ground rules. The National Strategy aims to formalize those ties, in an effort to further strengthen cooperation between state fusion centers. “As you evolve through time, you have to be sure you are grounded in doctrine, that the same ideas mean the same things to everyone,” Ashley said. “If everyone is on the same sheet of music, then there is a common way to communicate with each other. Whatever the crisis is that you are talking about, you now have the same doctrinal grounding.”
In practical terms, this formalization could play out in a number of ways. For example, the National Strategy calls for strengthening the Fusion Liaison Officer program as a means for law enforcement agencies as well as public safety and private-sector entities to engage with fusion centers.
Likewise, the strategy’s authors point to the power of the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which establishes standardized processes and policies for sharing timely and relevant terrorism-related information.
Such interstate initiatives are at the forefront of the fusion center evolution today. At the same time, fusion centers remain enigmatic for some: Challenged as a potential threat to civil liberties and charged by Congress with being insufficiently cohesive, fusion centers have seen their federal budgets decline while their state allocations have climbed.
The 78 state and major urban area fusion centers across the U.S. remain a mixed bag. Yet at their core, supporters say, these state-run hubs of information gathering continue to play a vital role in the overall effort to safeguard the nation through intelligence gathering and analysis.
The signs of terrorism can be difficult to spot: A few feet of missing copper wire, a break in a security fence, such minor events may easily go unnoticed. “You are looking for a needle in a haystack, so you need to look at all the haystacks to find that needle,” said Jim Saunders, director of investigative operations in the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which operates the state fusion center.
The center draws the vast majority of its $2.2 million budget from the state, as is typically the case. The money is local — and most of the work is local too. The haystacks Saunders investigates are Iowan at the heart, even if they may one day land in some federal file.
Take, for instance, city sanitation: It’s hardly one’s first choice as a security agency, but Saunders sometimes relies on the trash haulers as much as he does the intelligence analysts. “We educate them: If you see empty cans of ether, if you see stripped lithium batteries or propane canisters or boxes of pseudoephedrine, you need to know that there is something going on here,” he said. “Then when they start picking up something that looks like the components of a meth lab, they will know to call those things in.”
The local private sector plays an equally vital role. All that copper wiring that disappears from construction sites? “By itself, that’s just somebody stealing metal,” Saunders said. “[But] if you take this wiring from a cellphone tower, you have disabled cellphone capabilities in a big chunk of the state, including 911 capabilities. So we have worked closely with utility providers to better track these instances, to better secure these facilities, to better identify suspects, to mitigate the potential impact beyond the theft itself.”
If the intelligence network is local — from law enforcement to municipal workers to private-sector partners — the threats also can be highly localized in nature. In Northern California, for instance, operators of the regional fusion center were at one time seeing cybercriminals hitting local companies for $40,000 in a single incident. As a region rich in technology firms, the area was a prime target for cybercrime.
A year and a half ago, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center fired back, working with FEMA and the DHS to develop training to help analysts triage cybercrime incidents. “We can’t send the IT folks to help you, but we can say, ‘Here are the potential resources that are available, especially at the federal level,’ the same way we do on the level of physical threats,” said the center’s director, Mike Sena. “Now there is a routine for how we triage that and how it is passed along to the appropriate agency.”
None of this alters the basic function of the fusion center, which is primarily to feed local data up to federal law enforcement. While that has not changed, it’s clear that state-level concerns are growing.
The numbers help tell the story. In 2013 the federal government’s direct expenditures on fusion centers were $69.6 million, a 10 percent decline from the prior year. At the same time, state spending rose 3.6 percent to $102.1 million and local spending went up 2.1 percent to $70.3 million.
As a result, no one fusion center is like another. “These are state assets, so each state is going to use these centers differently and to different effect. It was never the intention to say, ‘This is what a fusion center is going to look like,’” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While there may be idiosyncrasies, in many cases a similar model has emerged, one that puts the fusion facility not just at the center of intelligence analysis, but also as the focal point of public communications.
“There will be times when the governor will use the fusion center to get critical information out to everyone in the network,” said Nelson. “The fusion center gets the information, and then if local first responders have questions about public safety data, about a health threat or terrorism threat, now they have someone to call.”
Ebola may well become an example: Fusion centers won’t analyze the threat, but they may come to serve as the hub of information for diverse public service agencies.
While terror may have been the impetus at first, this readiness to play quarterback in every type of emergency situation has become a hallmark of most fusion centers. “The states are seeing value in these fusion centers and it’s not because of the terrorist threat alone,” Nelson said. “It’s specifically because of this all-hazards approach.”
In Kentucky it’s clear to see how the fusion center is working to straddle the line, facilitating both federal and local needs for information. Participants in the fusion center include state and local law enforcement and emergency agencies, as well as FBI, ATF, customs and other federal officials. Together they gather, analyze and share data in the search for possible threats.
Some find this appalling, claiming that “[f]usion centers have been used to record and share information about First-Amendment-protected activities in a way that aids repressive police activity and chills freedom of association,” in the words of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties advocacy group.
This charge has hovered around fusion centers since their inception, the proposition that such facilities are in effect internal spying apparatus. Nelson dismisses this on principle. “At the end of the day, the fusion center is a clearinghouse, meant to help public safety officials have the information they need to do their jobs,” he said.
In fact, some say the role of the fusion center is to ensure the information is not wrongly elevated to the status of a national security threat. “Information has to be vetted. A lot of things come through that may look suspicious, but in actuality you may be violating someone’s civil rights and civil liberties if that report is improperly collected,” Ashley said. “Taking a picture of a bridge is not a suspicious act.”
Saunders relies on his two dozen analysts and field agents to ensure the First Amendment remains intact. “Civil liberties and privacy are at the forefront of all this,” he said. “If we don’t have any credible information that there is an active threat, we don’t want anything to do with it.”
Most in the fusion center community would suggest that conversations about spying only detract from the far more pressing issues in their world, especially the need for talented analysts. As fusion centers feel their way forward in the coming years, this is going to be a pivot point, some say.
“The true power of the fusion center is in the analytic capability — not the fancy software, but the trained individuals who are able to create value from the information,” Ashley said. “That is the No. 1 resource that a fusion center brings to bear.”
And yet, looking forward, some express concern that those human assets may not be available as needed. In Kentucky, one of Halmhuber’s four analysts just left for the private sector, and she worries it’s a growing trend, especially for those on IT security detail.
“You bring someone in from college and train them as an intelligence analyst, focusing on the cyber-realm. They get a couple of years under their belt and then they can earn four or five or six times their salary somewhere else,” she said. “You invest thousands of dollars in training and then the private sector comes in and offers them something that we as the state government can’t match.”
At least some in Congress have heard that call. “Fusion center analysis will not continue to grow to fully meet the national needs without additional and advanced analyst training,” noted a July 2013 report from the House Committee on Homeland Security. The report called for a defined road map of analyst competencies, as well as the development of specialized training programs.
It’s clear that a solid base of analytic skill will be a fundamental component going forward, especially as fusion centers move to broaden and solidify their interstate cooperation efforts in order to become a true national network, as much in practice as in name.