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Fusion Centers Need More Rules, Oversight

Garbage in, garbage out. That, according to a new bipartisan Congressional report, is the problem plaguing a network of 77 “fusion centers” operating in almost every state and major city.

Published: October 18, 2012

Published in Roll Call.

Garbage in, garbage out. That, accord­ing to a new bipar­tisan Congres­sional report, is the prob­lem plaguing a network of 77 “fusion centers” oper­at­ing in almost every state and major city. 

Touted as a center­piece of domestic coun­terter­ror­ism efforts, fusion centers are places where federal, state, local and tribal agen­cies come together to share inform­a­tion about national secur­ity and other threats. 

The theory is that in their normal activ­it­ies, state and local police come across inform­a­tion that might be useful in uncov­er­ing terror­ist plots. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity funded and promoted fusion centers as a means to harvest this inform­a­tion and provide it to intel­li­gence analysts so they could “connect the dots” and prevent terror­ist attacks.

Sounds good in theory. But as early as 2007, leaked reports from fusion centers showed seri­ous prob­lems with their intel­li­gence gath­er­ing. 

Instead of look­ing for terror­ist threats, fusion centers were monit­or­ing lawful polit­ical and reli­gious activ­ity. That year, the Virginia Fusion Center described a Muslim get-out–the-vote campaign as “subvers­ive.” In 2009, the North Cent­ral Texas Fusion Center iden­ti­fied lobby­ing by Muslim groups as a possible threat.

The DHS dismissed these as isol­ated epis­odes, but the two-year Senate invest­ig­a­tion found that such tactics were hardly rare. It concluded that fusion centers routinely produce “irrel­ev­ant, useless or inap­pro­pri­ate” intel­li­gence that endangers civil liber­ties. 

None of their inform­a­tion has disrup­ted a single terror­ist plot. These revel­a­tions call into ques­tion the value of fusion centers as currently struc­tured. At a minimum, they under­score the need for greater over­sight and clearer rules on what inform­a­tion fusion centers collect and dissem­in­ate. 

Of course, effect­ive inform­a­tion shar­ing is crit­ical to national secur­ity. But as the Senate invest­ig­a­tion demon­strates, there is little value in distrib­ut­ing inform­a­tion if it is shoddy, biased or simply irrel­ev­ant. When fusion centers feed such inform­a­tion into the echo cham­ber of federal data­bases, they only compound mistakes and clog the system. 

The DHS has failed to create effect­ive mech­an­isms or incent­ives for qual­ity control. Instead, fusion centers collect and share inform­a­tion accord­ing to their indi­vidual stand­ards, which vary consid­er­ably. 

These rules often permit inform­a­tion to flow to federal agen­cies that has no connec­tion to crim­inal activ­ity — let alone terror­ism. This creates the risk that intel­li­gence networks will become satur­ated with poor or irrel­ev­ant inform­a­tion as well as lend undue cred­ib­il­ity to inac­cur­ate data. The Senate report showed that these risks are not just theor­et­ical. 

Fusion centers need expli­cit and consist­ent rules. The DHS should ensure that the inform­a­tion the centers collect and distrib­ute is relev­ant, useful and consti­tu­tional by requir­ing them to show some reas­on­able suspi­cion that crim­inal activ­ity is afoot. 

This is not a partic­u­larly high bar to clear. The reas­on­able suspi­cion stand­ard is famil­iar to every police officer. The require­ment would serve as an import­ant bulwark against privacy and civil rights viol­a­tions, but it would also keep mean­ing­less inform­a­tion out of the system. 

Without such well-defined and famil­iar stand­ards, as the Senate report demon­strates, fusion centers are left rudder­less.

In addi­tion, fusion centers must have active, inde­pend­ent over­sight. While Congres­sional inquir­ies are import­ant for expos­ing prob­lems, the Senate should not have been the first govern­mental body to take a crit­ical look at fusion centers.

At the state and local level, there is often no mech­an­ism to ensure that fusion centers are gener­at­ing useful inform­a­tion or comply­ing with the law. At the federal level, the DHS is respons­ible for veri­fy­ing that the data shared by fusion centers meet certain minimum stand­ards. But the DHS has deleg­ated this respons­ib­il­ity to the centers them­selves and has not conduc­ted inde­pend­ent audits. 

DHS over­sight has been so poor that the depart­ment could not even say how much money it has spent on fusion centers, estim­at­ing the cost at some­where from $289 million to $1.4 billion.

The fusion center system needs an imme­di­ate over­haul. Haphaz­ardly collect­ing inform­a­tion about Amer­ic­ans and call­ing it “intel­li­gence” damages civil liber­ties and national secur­ity. 

As the Senate report recom­mends, the DHS should work closely with state and local govern­ments to create inde­pend­ent over­sight mech­an­isms and ensure that fusion centers collect and share inform­a­tion lawfully and effect­ively.