State fusion centers struggle to produce useful info, study finds

The report, by the Congressional Research Service, cited problems with the centers’ lack of connectivity with existing law enforcement databases and poor compliance with federally backed technical data-sharing standards.

State intelligence fusion centers, which have received praise and federal funds as a tool for merging terrorism, law enforcement and all-hazard intelligence, are struggling to produce useful information as a result of tangled technology and unclear missions, according to a nationwide study. The report, titled “Fusion Centers: Issues and Options for Congress” and completed this month by the Congressional Research Service, cited problems with the centers’ lack of connectivity with existing law enforcement databases and poor compliance with federally backed technical data-sharing standards. Federal agencies have contributed to the problems by spewing overlapping data at the centers via uncoordinated and insecure networks that are hard to use, the auditors said. Thomas McNamara, program manager of the Information Sharing Environment at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, responded to the criticism by stating in a public meeting today that the CRS report had been misinterpreted. Part of McNamara’s response involved a restatement of the fact that fusion centers differ in the type of information they handle, a topic the CRS report clarifies in a discussion of congressional efforts to forge a national fusion center strategy. The CRS report cites state officials’ complaints about the high costs of preparing facilities to meet federal standards for handling highly classified information. The state officials reportedly said that different federal agencies require divergent technologies to protect the workstations that handle their classified information. The lack of reciprocity and coordination among federal agencies in the area of technical requirements for secure facilities forces costs upward, according to state officials cited in the CRS report. Fusion center officials cited costs of $75,000 to $100,000 to provide the secure space needed to protect each classified workstation that federal agencies provide and said state governments aren't reimbursed for those expenses. Even if the technical means of information sharing worked, the rules for shifting data across systems hinder the process, state officials told the congressional investigators. The officials cited more than 100 categories of sensitive but unclassified information. The federal government plans to reduce that plethora of classification categories to three under a project known as the Controlled Unclassified Initiative, but those changes have not received final approval, the report said. The state centers’ technology woes are reinforced by the fact that many states lack systems to pool data from relevant databases and networks within their jurisdictions. “Such systems are expensive and potentially problematic in getting all agencies with homeland security-related missions to adopt a particular system,” the report stated. The auditors cited one fusion center that had access to only 30 percent of the law enforcement data available in the state. Officials at that center said their connectivity compared well to that of comparable centers. The CRS report cited another case in which a state fusion center planned to activate a network that would be linked to about 92 percent of the available data sources, but it added that such a high level of connectivity is rare. A comparable problem arises with the state fusion centers’ decisions to purchase systems that don’t use federally backed law enforcement data-sharing standards, including the Justice Department’s version of Extensible Markup Language. “Currently, all guidance on this is voluntary,” the report stated. Fusion center officials told CRS investigators that federal data-sharing networks such as the Homeland Security Department’s Homeland Security Information Network and its sister network, HSIN-Secret, along with their numerous counterparts operated by other agencies, provide a time-consuming flow of uncoordinated information to analysts in the centers. “One official found the message from Washington regarding efforts to streamline dissemination channels contradictory with the continued promotion of individual agencies’ pet projects at the state and local level.” the report stated. “In addition, fusion center officials found the [federal] systems’ usability and security lacking.” “There is some misunderstanding around the CRS report,” said McNamara, who spoke today at a panel discussion on information sharing sponsored by Government Executive magazine. McNamara said most fusion centers don’t focus just on counterterrorism work but cover all crimes, including terrorism. He said a few centers, such as those in New York City and Los Angeles, concentrate strictly on counterterrorism, but they are not typical. “The ISE is pushing to use the fusion centers as a node of communication between federal and state and local governments,” he said. “It is hard to talk to everyone, so if Washington can talk to 50 states, who then communicate it down to the local level, that is much better.” McNamara also said fusion centers should integrate and filter information from the local level to pass to the federal level. ISE soon will launch a new system that the organization will use to create and manage the flow of suspicious activity reports that come from fusion centers. “This is an example of one business process we need to change,” McNamara said. “We have to figure out how to make reports from 17,000 to 20,000 police departments usable.” Staff writer Jason Miller contributed to this story.

Wilson P. Dizard III writes for Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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