CRS: Mission creep at fusion centers

Antiterrorism information-sharing and analysis is taking a back seat to criminal intelligence at the more than 40 state intelligence fusion centers, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

State governors created the centers, and the Homeland Security Department provides part of the funding. Their purpose is to fuse federal, state and local intelligence against terrorism, but CRS found the fusion centers have gravitated more toward collecting and analyzing criminal intelligence and all-hazards intelligence. The service found few indications that the centers have been making efforts to become aware of terrorist plans and foil attacks.

'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,' CRS researchers wrote in the 100-page report, 'Fusion Centers: Issues and Options for Congress.' It was authored by specialists Todd Masse and John Rollins and analyst Siobhan O'Neil.

The fusion centers have received $380 million in start-up funding from the Homeland Security Department but many of them do not have future funding secured, according to CRS. Furthermore, the fusion centers may present risks of civil liberties and privacy incursions, and may not be able to demonstrate enough effectiveness without further guidance, the report suggested.

The fusion centers are further hampered by the way they are structured, according to the CRS. They have little private sector input, they encounter difficulties with classification of information, and in many cases they have limited access to relevant state information databases.

That access is uneven. The report said that one state center had access to only 30 percent of the pertinent databases, while officials at a different state's center said they would soon obtain access to 92 percent of such databases.

The centers also suffer from a lack of interoperability with other networks and systems. Although the federal government has recommended use of Extensible Markup Language (XML) to improve information-sharing, it is not required, and many centers continue to purchase proprietary information technology equipment and services that hamper their ability to interact with other systems, the report said.

Congress should consider drafting a federal fusion center strategy and addressing the sustainability of federal funding for the centers, the authors concluded. Multi-state, regional intelligence fusion centers also may present an alternative to state-sponsored centers, they wrote.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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