Mission Creep at Counterterrorism "Fusion Centers"

Fusion centers are state-run, with funding help from the Department of Homeland Security. It’s all sort of ad hoc, but their purpose is to “fuse” federal, state, and local intelligence against terrorism. But—no surprise—they’re not doing much actual fusion, and they’re more commonly used for other purposes.

From a Congressional Research Service report dated June 6, 2007:

Fusion centers are state-created entities largely financed and staffed by the states, and there is no one “model” for how a center should be structured. State and local law enforcement and criminal intelligence seem to be at the core of many of the centers. Although many of the centers initially had purely counterterrorism goals, for numerous reasons, they have increasingly gravitated toward an all-crimes and even broader all-hazards approach. While many of the centers have prevention of attacks as a high priority, little “true fusion,” or analysis of disparate data sources, identification of intelligence gaps, and pro-active collection of intelligence against those gaps which could contribute to prevention is occurring. Some centers are collocated with local offices of federal entities, yet in the absence of a functioning intelligence cycle process, collocation alone does not constitute fusion.

The federal role in supporting fusion centers consists largely of providing financial assistance, the majority of which has flowed through the Homeland Security Grant Program; sponsoring security clearances; providing human resources; producing some fusion center guidance and training; and providing congressional authorization and appropriation of national foreign intelligence program resources, is well as oversight hearings. This report includes over 30 options for congressional consideration to clarify and potentially enhance the federal government’s relationship with fusion centers. One of the central options is the potential drafting of a formal national fusion center strategy that would outline, among other elements, the federal government’s clear expectations of fusion centers, its position on sustainment funding, metrics for assessing fusion center performance, and definition of what constitutes a “mature” fusion center.

Honestly, the report itself is kind of boring, even for this sort of thing. There’s an interesting section on proactive vs. reactive security (p. 25):

Most fusion centers respond to incoming requests, suspicious activity reports, and/or finished information/intelligence products. This approach largely relies on data points or analysis that are already identified as potentially problematic. As mentioned above, it could be argued that this approach will only identify unsophisticated criminals and terrorists. The 2007 Fort Dix plot may serve as a good example—would law enforcement have ever become aware of this plot if the would-be perpetrators hadn’t taken their jihad video to a video store to have it copied? While state homeland security and law enforcement officials appear to have reacted quickly and passed the information to the FBI, would they have ever been able to find would-be terrorists within their midst if those individuals avoided activities, criminal or otherwise, that might bring to light their plot?

It is unclear if a single fusion center has successfully adopted a truly proactive prevention approach to information analysis and sharing.

Here’s another article on the topic.

Posted on August 28, 2007 at 6:30 AM13 Comments


Ed Hurst August 28, 2007 8:09 AM

You’d think we would have less to fear from a police state with this level of incompetence. Sadly, my experience in law enforcement tells me the most oppressive are those with the least competence.

supersnail August 28, 2007 8:19 AM

It would be interesting to see if the distribution of hte funding follows the normal DHS pattern:-
— Democrat voting areas — very little.
— Republican voting areas — quite a lot.
— Swing states — Jackpot!

Nick Lancaster August 28, 2007 8:40 AM

It strikes me that ‘fusion centers’ are about as effective as the annual roundup of psychic predictions in the tabloids. Continued funding is dependent on demonstrating that the center is actually having an impact, thus, even marginal achievements are puffed up and used to show the enormity of the threat we face, therefore … the center should receive more money.

In fact, I wonder if the ‘enormous resources’ tapped in the previous entry (runners triggering terrorism scare) will be one such incident. That there was no terrorism and no threat is irrelevant.

C Gomez August 28, 2007 8:52 AM

Is anyone really surprised?

When you fund something at the federal level without thinking, the money is simply spent… any way possible… to hire as many civil service workers as possible (the state employee unions love it).

It doesn’t matter if there is a real purpose. By golly, we’ve done something!! We’ve wasted taxpayer money for a vital function!

Think before you spend. Otherwise you just spend. Then you have to spend more money on the right solution anyway. And I’m pretty tired of paying for it.

Why the feds are taking federal tax dollars to help states do what they should be doing anyways is beyond me. Seems a federal tax cut is in order. Let the states tax the appropriate amounts to do their job and I’ll gladly pay it. At least I have more influence in my state elections.

DigitalCommando August 28, 2007 10:27 AM

Fusion centers are nothing more than domestic spy centers who’s sole purpose is to allow complete and total monitoring of all citizens, and will never provide a single credible terrorist catch. The 4 million cameras in Britain tied into these fusion (spy) centers have not prevented, or detected a single attack and have only served to re-create those events AFTER the fact. These centers operate in total secrecy without ANY oversight. DHS software allows these centers to track your location by simply typing in your cell phone number, and as you drive through the city, traffic cameras automatically switch based on your cars location. This surveillance can even continue onto private property such as shopping malls, schools and colleges, and any other entity that decides to allow law enforcement access to their network DVR’s. Being the greedy consumers of privacy destroying technology that law enforcement has now become, we can now look to the skies as the next method of surveillance, which will grant local law enforcement access to real-time satellite imagery and the use of virtually silent, unmanned aerial drones.

Michael Stevens August 28, 2007 11:20 AM

DigitalCommando: I wasn’t aware that Britain had become part of the US, or that the DHS had invaded….

RSaunders August 28, 2007 1:37 PM

State centers for terrorist data fusion – How does anybody think this works? It would depend on “terrorist data”, i.e. data about terrorists. Does any state agency have any of this? Does anybody who knows the phone number of DHS (+ have any data about real terrorists in any of the 50 States? I think not. If they did, they would call the number and tell DHS and the terrorists would be on the evening news perp-walking their way to Gitmo.

The FAA needs data fusion because it has lots of data from radars and radios about the planes that are flying around. NIH needs data fusion because it has lots of data from researchers, doctors, and medical suppliers to search for future disease trends.

You don’t need data fusion until you have more data than you can process. The anti-terrorists in law enforcement have no terrorists to collect data on. The only data they’ve collected is about non-terrorists. Frankly, that doesn’t seem to need fusion because we’re unwilling to accept the intelligence it distills to = Our anti-terrorist measures don’t do anything useful.

Zachary August 28, 2007 2:46 PM


You’d think we would have less to fear from a police state with this level of incompetence. Sadly, my experience in law enforcement tells me the most oppressive are those with the least competence.

“Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.” –Jorge Luis Borges

Extrapolate August 28, 2007 3:21 PM

So Bruce, you obviously understand the concept of Mission Creep. So just apply that understanding to your advocacy of federal government “solutions” in general (and a top-down federal standards enforcement bureaucracy for first responders, in particular.)

The human nature embedded in the humans involved is the same, no matter if they work at the DHS, or elsewhere.

HammerHead September 16, 2007 10:50 AM

Well it’s obvious that some of the commenters (aboave) don’t understand the slightest thing about the terrorism cycle and local law enforcement’s ability to identify and/or interdict terrorism in its formative stages. The Counterterrroism officers/agents don’t have enough bodies to randomly engage the public, nor should they… the public is where many of the subtle dots reside. Fusion centers receive information mainly from the public (but also fire, EMS and health) and the information is analyzed and cross referenced with other exiting data in an attempt to determine whether or not reasonable suspicious exits to further investigate. A good example of this concept is the patrol stop of the two men in South Carolina for speeding with what they themselves called “firecrackers”. The fireworks were actually: “PVC pipe in the trunk filled with an explosive mixture of potassium nitrate, Karo syrup and kitty litter. Officers also found safety fuse, bullets and a mostly-full 5-gallon can of gas”. As we now know, they have been indicted on terrorism related charges. A federal prosecutor said Friday,”that the computer they had when stopped, “contained a 12-minute video showing how to take apart a remote-control toy car and reassemble the wiring to make it into a remote detonation device.” A footnote, the suspect(s) are connected (yet to determine how extensively) to Sami Al-Arian, the terrorism convicted Palestinian Islamic Jihad professor. Fusion centers also train local public safety officers in terrorism awareness and how to report information…and that my friends, is a good thing if preventing terrorism is a goal. But, it’s curious that some believe that law enforcement should only play a responding role. If that’s the case, then why did we have a 9/11 commission with all of its recommendations to include local law enforcement in CT effort?

Ack October 4, 2007 1:45 AM

State and local law enforcement agencies focus on supporting investigations and closing cases. It is difficult and disruptive to displace ingrained operational practices.

If the Fusion Center model is appropriated by local LE agencies to train analysts and build proactive criminal intelligence capabilities, providing new resources rather than burdening existing officers, this will provide an immediate pay back in the measurable reduction of crime.

When developed, these skills and new operational capabilities will be applied to the long term need to fight domestic terrorism. Regardless of how we got here, we all have to expect the worst; US policies around the globe have increased the risks from domestic terrorism for the rest of our lives.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via https://michelf.ca/projects/php-markdown/extra/

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.