One of the results of the attacks against the United States in 2001 was the creation of federal and state intelligence fusion centers. Located throughout the country, these facilities are sites where raw terror-related information is collected, filtered, analyzed and disseminated by federal, state and local homeland security officials. Fusion centers play a critical role in the ongoing efforts to make sure critical information is not overlooked or mishandled prior to another major terror attack.
A recent report from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee was critical of the federal and state centers—program costs, alleged privacy violations, and lack of substance in terms of terror information sharing.
The theory behind intelligence fusion centers is very simple. Every citizen in the United States is a potential terrorist hunter and needs to be educated regarding that important role. In reality, community-based homeland protection is no different than community-based crime prevention. Just as private citizens are the first level of protection against crime, they are the first wave of protection against those seeking to commit acts of terror.
By virtue of demographics, John and Mary Doe have better odds of encountering possible terrorist activity than do the police. Given the fact that private citizens have the most to lose if things go bad, many of them have stepped up to report unusual behavior to the trained professionals.
Most of the contacts with potential terrorists since 2001 can actually be credited to vigilant private citizens and law enforcement officers. In some cases, the willingness to report has led to major breaks in national security cases. Teaching American citizens what to look for, what to report, and how to report it, often falls to the staff of the fusion centers in some communities.
An informed and prepared citizenry, working with highly trained law enforcement personnel, can be the key to success in preventing future terror attacks in this country. This being the case, Congress should acknowledge the important contributions made by fusion center staffers to national preparedness over the last decade.
Once a conscientious citizen or an alert law enforcement officer spots suspicious behavior or circumstances, what happens next? First, it must be reported to appropriate authorities and once the information ends up in the hands of local, state or federal law enforcement, it becomes much more valuable in many ways if it can be shared with other partners involved in the collective homeland security process. Information that finds its way into a fusion center will be carefully examined and evaluated by experts from many disciplines and shared appropriately with those who have a need to know.
This fusion center process helps to eliminate the pre-2001 information silos, where many agencies had bits of information but unfortunately no central authority had the whole story. The elimination of silos was one of the reasons Congress authorized the establishment of the fusion process in the first place, so it obviously is a critical component of effective intelligence processing for homeland security purposes.
If Congress really wants to improve the fusion center process, perhaps it should focus on the reluctance of some federal, state, county and local public safety agencies and officials to contribute meaningful information to the fusion process so it can be stirred by these centers and used for appropriate and intended purposes.
Legislators can look at the general lack of participation by vital agencies and provide incentives for them to share information more readily. Without effective levels of voluntary sharing, the fusion center concept is doomed and those responsible for protecting the homeland from attack are left with small bits of meaningless information instead of the ability to connect the dots. The fusion centers need adequate funding and support if they are to continue making inroads in terms of law-enforcement information sharing.
J.T. McBride is a Terrorist Liaison Officer with the Lake County, Ohio Sheriff’s Office and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.