Government Data Centers Under Fire

on October 24, 2011 at 8:01 AM

A nationwide network of 72 government-supported, state-run data centers used for sharing law enforcement and counterterrorism information are coming under increasing fire as federal budget cuts, intra-agency turf battles and Congressional scrutiny are raising fresh questions about their effectiveness.

Although the federal government has made significant progress in the last decade to improve terrorism-related information sharing, widely divergent operating practices in how information as assembled and used at these so-called data fusion centers have led some in Congress and others in the government to question their value.

Some, including a high-level federal official involved with homeland security, have argued that many fusion centers are fighting for relevancy in a homeland security apparatus dominated by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) at a time when federal funding is becoming much harder to justify.

That was the underlying message discussed by both lawmakers and homeland security officials during an Oct. 12 hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking member of the committee, said she and committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) “have been fighting off efforts by some of our colleagues to do away with fusion centers.”

Fusion centers are staffed by federal, state and local law enforcement and private security specialists, whose mission is to analyze and share data in a way that enables law enforcement to uncover, predict and hopefully prevent major crimes and terrorist attacks.

As of 2011, the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice recognized and supported 72 of these fusion centers as the backbone of what is known as the government-wide Information Sharing Environment (ISE). However, only about 35 are fully staffed and equipped. Of the remaining 37, many are staffed by no more than one or two people and are often located within the offices of other state and local agencies.

But Capitol Hill is not the only place where the fusion center concept has come under fire.

A senior official involved in homeland security operations, who spoke to Breaking Gov on condition of anonymity, described an insurgent-like resistance to share certain streams of information with fusion centers and their main DHS interface – the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) – due to the fact that active investigations have been compromised.

“Fusion centers are supposed to be intelligence organizations, but they’ve been caught being operational,” the official said. While the JTTFs typically have all the local law enforcement and federal agencies represented, actions taken by I&A or law enforcement offices on delicate information have compromised cases under investigation by the FBI, which works with the Department of Homeland, but as part of the Department of Justice.

The FBI “has an entire unit setup just to deal with fusion centers” and the information requests coming from the DHS I&A office, the official said. However, he was highly critical of the diversion of critical resources and manpower to what was described as a glorified newspaper clipping service or sorts for senior management.

“They’re consumers of intelligence and in a lot of ways they’re hindering the mission. Half of the time the FBI and DHS are fighting each other,” he said.

Because the fusion centers are run by the states, but as much as half of their funding comes from DHS’ Homeland Security Grant Program, officials at many of the fusion centers are facing increasing pressure to prove their value, said the senior official.

“The fusion centers are really fighting for relevancy.”

Another front of discontent is emerging from civil liberty groups who complain that local law enforcement agencies using fusion centers to maintain surveillance databases that can easily skirt federal privacy laws.

“The lack of oversight is intentional,” said Cyrus McGoldrick, civil rights manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York, referring to the New York Police Department’s decision to keep their surveillance database separate from other fusion center systems. “We need to really look for these data collection models around the country. If this happened in New York, I would be shocked if it’s not happening elsewhere.”

Relevant Depends on Who You Talk To
Ambassador Thomas McNamara, who served as the program manager for the ISE from 2006 to 2009, and is now an adjunct professor at George Washington University, blamed continued cultural and workforce issues at all levels of government for whatever obstacles remain in homeland security information sharing.

When asked by Collins what the underlying factors are to the continued information sharing shortfalls at the federal, state and local levels, McNamara pointed to what he called “ingrained habits” that have nothing to do with technology.

“It is not a technology problem,” said McNamara, referring to federal, state and local information sharing. “The policy problem comes in when the policy does not allow the technology to be employed. Then, the attitudinal problem, or the in-the-trenches problem, [arises] when even though you change the policy, the work habits and ingrained methodologies of [employees] don’t change.”

The 2009 Fort Hood shooting by Army Major Nidal Hassan provided a glimpse of those symptoms. Homeland security officials across different federal agencies and geographic regions had bits and pieces of information that could have alerted the Pentagon to Hassan’s plans but were not shared because of existing information sharing protocols, said Collins.

Members of the JTTFs in Washington, D.C. and San Diego “chose not to share all of the information that they had due to the requirements for FBI approval under the JTTF guidelines and memorandum of understanding,” Collins said during the hearing on Oct. 12. As a result, Hassan’s contacts with Yemeni-based, American-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki were not passed on to the Army. “Because it couldn’t be passed on without explicit approval by the FBI,” said Collins.

Capt. Ronald Brooks is the director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center – one of the nation’s fusion centers. But he testified before the Senate as a representative of the National Fusion Center Association. And his message was clear: fusion centers are needed because they do things that the JTTFs do not have the manpower or mandate to do, such as mapping real-time threats to regional and local critical infrastructure.

“JTTFs are an investigative body. Fusion centers play a much different role,” said Brooks. “They’re not only the information sharing hub, the fusion centers are the place where we build a cadre of terrorism liaison officers. We train not only the 840,000 cops around the country but more than a million firefighters and EMS workers and our private sector partners in indicators and warnings, and the seven signs of terrorism.”

A Bigger Battle Brewing?
Brooks’ explanation seems to have made an impression on Collins, who said the description of fusion centers provided by Brooks was “exactly what they had been looking for.” But fusion centers may have bigger problems on the horizon.

A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the same day as the Senate hearing concluded that the federal government had not only failed to establish a fully functional Information Sharing Environment (ISE), as called for by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, but that more than half of the 72 recognized fusion centers – considered the backbone of the ISE — had not yet implemented a plan to develop analytical capabilities for time-sensitive information. Making matters worse, the DHS is only now about to issue performance guidelines for fusion centers to evaluate their contributions to improving homeland security.

And that may be the Achilles heel of both the Information Sharing Environment and the fusion centers: Will a Congress threatening deep cuts to everything from defense to healthcare tolerate a federally supported information sharing effort that in seven years has been unable to explain the value proposition of fusion centers and how it measures their performance?

McNamara stated the case bluntly. “A growing ISE interferes with other big rice bowls,” he said. “Deep collaboration [with the JTTFs] only comes with co-location and with some forms of integration of activities,” he added. But there’s less than “one full time FBI agent at the average fusion center in the U.S. That’s liaison, that’s not full collaboration,” said McNamara.

To remedy the situation, McNamara recommended that Congress establish a CIO-like position in the White House with “complete authorities and budget clout” to force federal agencies to make the necessary investments to further enhance information sharing.

But there’s still a very powerful contingent at work behind the scenes who view fusion centers — the darlings of both the DHS Office of I&A and the ISE program office — as duplicative organizations that do not contribute to the counterterrorism mission.

That in fact is one of the reasons fusion center proponents like Brooks and McNamara continue to press Congress for an expansion of the fusion center mandate – one that expands the fusion center rice bowl from counterterrorism only to an all hazards approach, according to the senior homeland security official interviewed by Breaking Gov.

Robert Riegle, the former director of the State and Local Program Office in the Intelligence and Analysis at DHS, is considered one of the founding fathers of the fusion center concept at DHS. While he acknowledges problems with the performance of fusion centers and the DHS Office of I&A, he does not agree with those who claim there are fundamental problems with the existence and missions of fusion centers.

“I believe firmly in the mission,” said Riegle. “I think it’s one of the most important and beautiful missions in the federal government,” he said. “But whether or not they are performing effectively is a different question.”