WASHINGTON - Budgetary uncertainty, turf wars, and competing priorities plague the country’s expanding network of state and regional intelligence fusion centers, federal and state stakeholders revealed yesterday.
“Typically for me, a fusion center success story may be, I go home happy that Bill and Steve didn’t punch each other in that meeting,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Matthew Drake, deputy director of the Northern Virginia Regional Intelligence Center, told a conference at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a national security think tank.
A key intelligence asset in the United States' homeland security architecture, fusion centers bring together law enforcement and intelligence personnel from state, local, and federal agencies to collect, analyze, vet, and disseminate intelligence to partners at all levels of government, including the U.S. intelligence community.
While a few fusion centers existed before 9-11, they have grown dramatically since al Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) currently recognizes 72. Largely owned and operated by state law enforcement agencies, fusion centers are considered one of the Obama administration’s primary tools to prevent another such attack by giving local first responders the intelligence they need to detect and disrupt emerging plots.
The centers' rapid growth and the amount of integration necessary to bring together personnel from different local, state, and federal agencies has brought growing pains.
The most pressing challenge facing many fusion centers is money, said Kerry L. Sleeper, a senior advisor to the Office of the Program Manager-Information Sharing Environment.
Because no two fusion centers are alike, their annual budgets vary dramatically from a low of $300,000 to a maximum of $8 million, according to Sleeper. And while most fusion centers rely on a complex mix of funding mechanisms, most are heavily dependent on federal funding. Further, he said, the centers exist on year-to-year grants, complicating long-term investment decisions.
It’s a problem the FBI’s Drake knows well.“It is concerning to us when it’s hard to plan more than a year out at a time,” he said, “Do we buy a plotter if next year we can’t afford toner. Sounds silly, but that’s the type of discussions we have.”
Col. Terry Ebbert, a retired U.S. Marine and the former director of homeland security for New Orleans, said the federal government must prioritize funding for fusion centers. Otherwise fusion centers get caught up in the “feeding frenzy” of the homeland security grant process as states and localities compete for scarce resources.
“We as a nation need to decide what is our priority and then demand those dollars be expended to accomplish the priorities,” he said.
Internal divisions and mistrust also hinder fusion centers’ ability to function properly at the field office.
“Our biggest struggle now is probably our culture ,” said Drake, noting its hard for a police detective or a federal agent to hand over a case they’ve built up to another agency for fear they’ll screw it up.
But there are ways to breakdown those divisions and achieve common ground, he said. At Drake’s fusion center, the most important tool isn't technology, it’s the conference room.
“I don’t ask the FBI to share information with the county... I’m going to ask Agent A to share information with Detective B,” Drake admitted. “If we put them at the table, face-to-face, the reality is they ultimately have the same goal, they’ll work something out.”