Washington State's fusion center offers a model for melding intelligence from multiple public and private sources.
While government is notoriously slow to implement change, one post-9-11 reform has bucked the trend: the rapidly growing national network of state, regional, and urban intelligence fusion centers. At the centers, teams of analysts crunch data and produce refined intelligence to help stakeholders address all hazards and all crimes. Nearly all of the country’s more than 40 centers were established between 2003 and 2007, and as many as 15 more are planned.
The rapid expansion has not come without growing pains, however. Administrators continue to define roles, set best practices, and secure permanent funding. And the centers have had some trouble involving private sector partners, who remain hesitant to share proprietary information with the government.
One center that is serving as a model for others is the Washington Joint Analytical Center (WAJAC) in Washington State. It “has been one of those great success stories in terms of pulling people together and getting them to shed their parochial interests to share information,” says Washington State Emergency Management Division (EMD) Director Jim Mullen, whose agency works with the center.
A Head Start
Most states began the march toward intelligence fusion only after 9-11. But law enforcement agencies in Washington State, as in a few other regions, were already on their way, having adopted the emerging discipline of intelligence-based policing. As the term implies, the process calls for collection and close analysis of a broad base of information to track and solve crimes or, ideally, to prevent them.
In the late 1990s, the Intelligence Committee of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police (WASCP), which enjoys quasi-governmental authority under state law, began pushing an intelligence-based approach to law enforcement. After 9-11, that effort broadened into a push for a statewide
Integrated intelligence initiative, which, with the support of the FBI, the Washington State Patrol (WSP), and then-Gov. Gary Locke’s Committee on Terrorism, led to the establishment of WAJAC in 2004. The center came under the operational command of the WSP, but administered through WASCP. Its board of directors consists of six state police chiefs and the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle field office. WSP Chief John Batiste is the board’s current chair.
The state was divided into nine regional intelligence groups (RIGs), each of which is charged with assigning personnel to review regional law enforcement activity and forward reports to WAJAC in Seattle, together forming the Statewide Intelligence Network.
As with many fusion centers, one of WAJAC’s major challenges was to find the resources it needed to carry out its operations. WAJAC has had considerable success in this regard. In some cases, it gets assistance from its partners. For example, the FBI’s Seattle field office donates the space occupied by WAJAC, while the sworn officers posted to WAJAC and the state’s nine RIGs are on loan from and paid by their own law enforcement agencies.
WAJAC sought to fund its civilian analyst positions with U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program (LETPP) grants. The state now funds its analysts with $2.4 million in annual LETPP support, says WAJAC commander WSP Lt. Randy Drake. Those grants, however, require WAJAC to hire analysts as contractors, not as regular, salaried staff.
While officials have been frustrated by some federal grant restrictions, at least one funding restriction ultimately served a useful purpose. Seattle and King County officials sought to fund their RIG as a freestanding, metropolitan fusion center using DHS Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funds. However, UASI funds cannot be spent on real estate, which prevented the RIG from using the money to establish a new center.
Due to that restriction, the Seattle Police Department has moved its homeland security function into loaned space at the FBI building adjoining WAJAC, with plans to develop an independent city fusion center at the site.
While stakeholders say that institutional pride led some city officials to resist the move at first, the funding restriction left them little choice. Now, officials say, they realize that co-location with the FBI is a plus as it places federal, state, and city officials in the same building, enhancing cooperation and increasing information sharing.
Getting the funds in place was critical to obtaining qualified staff. Of 18 civilian intelligence analysts employed in the Statewide Fusion System, five work at WAJAC, alongside four sworn law enforcement officers: two Seattle Police Department detectives, another from the King County Sheriff’s Department, and one from the Bellevue Police Department. The Washington Military Department has detailed one of its own analysts to WAJAC, with a second planned, says Drake.
WAJAC’s nonsworn analysts come from a variety of backgrounds, but consist primarily of retired law enforcement personnel, former military intelligence specialists, and veteran analysts from the region’s multi-jurisdictional High-Intensity Drug-Trafficking Task Force, he says.
Under One Roof
There’s a truism in real estate that the three most important factors are location, location, location. According to WAJAC stakeholders, one of the operation’s strongest suits is indeed its location. The center is located in the headquarters of the FBI’s Seattle Field Office, just one floor below the offices of the Washington State Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and the regional FBI Field Intelligence Group (FIG).
WAJAC staff can move freely between their space and that of the JTTF and FIG upstairs, and enjoy unrestricted access to FBI computer systems. The combined operation is slated to expand further when the intelligence operations of the Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriff’s Department, which together cover the Seattle metropolitan area, move into the floor below WAJAC, says David Gomez, FBI assistant special agent in charge of the Seattle field office.
While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the FBI have weathered heavy criticism for failure to recognize each other’s security clearances, the FBI has circumvented the problem here by issuing all of WAJAC’s analysts and law enforcement personnel top secret clearances, says Gomez.
WAJAC’s workload breaks down into two basic areas: Daily analysis and response to field requests.
Daily analysis. Information streams in from multiple sources, including RIGs, the federal government, other states, and open sources.
How some of this information is obtained is almost as complicated as the analysis process itself. The problem is that DHS is pushing its Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) database and portal, to the consternation of veteran state and local law enforcement officials. They are already comfortable with the Department of Justice’s Regional Information Sharing System (RISS), and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s Law Enforcement Information Exchange (LInX). LInX is widely used in states like Washington where Naval investigators collaborate heavily with state and local authorities. WAJAC seeks to take a holistic approach by taking advantage of all available databases, says Drake.
WAJAC issues bulletins to state or regional officials and, in some cases, to the general public, as analysts spot threats and trends from the data.
WSP handles distribution of the refined intelligence. In an emergency response, for example, EMD Director Mullen says that he does not deal directly with WAJAC, but relies on the WSP officer posted to the state’s emergency operations center to provide him with current intelligence.
Field requests. Second, WAJAC regularly takes requests for analysis from state and local law enforcement agencies in the field, in keeping with the center’s all-crimes, all-hazards approach. The requests for analysis primarily come from investigators seeking to spot trends in areas like drug crime, gang activity, or theft.
Drake chuckles at the suggestion that outsiders may envision the center as a humming, Hollywood-style situation room, dimly lit by massive flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. “It’s actually much more boring that what you see on 24. It’s mostly cubicles,” he says.
The analysts, however, could not do their jobs without some high-tech software tools.
WAJAC’s analysts process most of their data using three data analysis and visualization software programs, Drake says: COPLINK, along with intelligence analysis applications from Pen-Link, Ltd., and i2 Inc. RISS also comes into the mix.
COPLINK is designed to link data across different government databases. But Drake says the center’s analysts have found RISS to be more useful. RISS provides a national connectivity “backbone” offered by no other system, says Drake. This allows even the smallest law enforcement agencies from every region in the state to participate in the fusion system.
The key to success for regional analysts is a strong relationship with local officials, RIG-7 Intelligence Analyst Shawn M. Mahood says. And one way to build that relationship is to ensure that communications go both ways. To avoid a common source of frustration among his local counterparts, Mahood makes sure to distribute intelligence down to locals, rather than just sending theirs “up” to Seattle.
Mahood drafts daily intelligence bulletins to RIG-7 law enforcement officials, combining national and international open-source material, items drawn from bulletins issued by the country’s 42 other state and regional fusion centers, and law enforcement sensitive material from within Washington State.
Nationally, the private sector has shown a reluctance to share information with fusion centers (see “Fusion Centers Should Work with ISACs ,” Homeland Security, November 2007). But WAJAC is getting cooperation from one large player that may help to establish a national framework.
As WAJAC coalesced in the years after 9-11 alongside JTTF, former Seattle FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Scott Crabtree was “adamant” about getting Washington State’s major private sector entities involved, says Richard E. Hovel, Boeing’s senior aviation and homeland security advisor.
Boeing, the country’s largest aircraft manufacturer and second-largest defense contractor, was one of those entities. Boeing builds jetliners at plants in Renton and Everett, the latter home to the world’s largest building at 472 million cubic feet.
The idea met with trepidation within Boeing, Hovel says. But passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 convinced management of the need for an Information Sharing Environment linking the government, including states and fusion centers, to the private sector. It wanted to help make that happen.
Boeing’s goal is to place a full-time company intelligence analyst at WAJAC. But that’s easier said than done. Company officials, the Seattle FBI office, and officials representing WAJAC, including the Washington State Attorney General, have worked at length to cross the legal hurdles needed to do so.
The myriad parties to the arrangement have developed a memorandum of understanding, while Boeing itself has applied for coverage under the Support Anti-terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act of 2002, which offers liability protection to companies providing products or services in support of domestic counterterrorism.
The difficulty of engaging the private sector is evident. Boeing had a leg up because of its specific sector. All of its corporate security officials already have the required security clearances, explains Hovel, “so we didn’t have to climb that hill.”
Even so, the company and state officials have yet to get all the permissions ironed out to get a Boeing person into the WAJAC facility.
Should those efforts succeed, Boeing and its government counterparts hope to create common templates that other companies and fusion centers can use to create memoranda of understanding and SAFETY Act applications. The templates, Hovel says, could be posted on llis.gov, the DHS Web portal for lessons learned and general preparedness information sharing.
Regional giants Starbucks Corporation, Amazon.com, Inc., and Alaska Airlines have also expressed interest in working with WAJAC, Gomez says. But officials are currently focused on Boeing, and success there could pave the way for other firms, says Drake.
Not every company will want to have the same physical presence that Boeing seeks, but they may want to attend briefings either regularly or as situations arise. To accommodate those needs, the FBI field office has set up space adjoining WAJAC.
WAJAC’s work is far from theoretical. The Seattle area is considered a high-risk terrorist target because of its population size, its importance to the American and global economy, its status as a major international travel and maritime trade hub, and its location close to a foreign border.
WAJAC is on the lookout for signs of any threats to these assets. Two examples illustrate the effort and how it is working.
One concerns Analyst Mahood, a former physical security specialist for the FBI in Seattle. He pores over local 911 center call logs and police reports, looking for notable incidents and larger patterns of traditional criminal behavior. He also looks out for what he calls “pre-operational indicators” of possible terrorist activity.
Mahood cites the example of an unremarkable police report filed by a young officer who had been called to an area dollar store early in 2007 on a report of suspicious activity. The store clerk told him that a man had come to the store on consecutive days to purchase large quantities of liquid chlorine bleach and ammonia. The young and relatively inexperienced officer saw nothing to be concerned about. He filed a report and closed the case.
For Mahood, however, the two substances were a red flag. Combined, they could produce deadly chlorine gas which had been used in suicide bomb attacks by Iraqi insurgents. Mahood filed a report with WAJAC about the pattern of suspicious activity.
Luckily, the plot turned out to be more Caddyshack than al Qaeda. The purchaser of the chemicals was a local golf course groundskeeper struggling amid a state ban on gopher traps. To eliminate the pests, he poured homemade, heavier-than-air chlorine gas into their holes.
“There wasn’t anything to it, but it’s the kind of thing that I’m looking for,” Mahood says.
The second example concerns the ferries that carry 26 million people every year between Seattle, surrounding towns, and the Olympic Peninsula across Puget Sound. The Department of Justice considers the ferry system one of the country’s top potential maritime terrorist targets, while a 2004 FBI analysis of suspicious activity determined that of 153 incidents over three years, 19 were “likely or extremely likely” to have involved terrorist surveillance, according to the The Seattle Times.
Then, last year, area authorities received at least 15 reports of the same pair of men riding ferries in the region, acting suspiciously, and snapping photographs, Gomez says.
FBI agents and a handful of WAJAC analysts who are former detectives took to the field and interviewed witnesses, including ferry crews and staff. The investigators further benefited from the work of one of the ferry’s skippers, who engaged the men in innocuous conversation, Gomez says. The skipper also surreptitiously snapped some photos of the suspects with a digital camera.
After analyzing the data, state and federal investigators “anguished” over what to do with it, Gomez says. On Aug. 20, they decided to issue a public press release on the case, featuring two photos and requesting the public’s help in identifying the men, stating that the pair “exhibited unusual behavior, which was reported by passengers.” The release went on to note that, “While this behavior may have been innocuous, the FBI and WAJAC would like to resolve these reports.”
The news media’s degrees of cooperation varied; local broadcast stations and national outlets including Fox and ABC news broadcast the photos. The Times printed the photos along with a story based on the FBI release, while its competitor, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I), wrote an article but did not print the photos.
Their article stated that “The P-I elected not to publish the photos, citing civil liberties and privacy concerns, which editors felt outweighed the newsworthiness of the images.”
The bulletin has not yet resulted in identification of the two men, but “the concept was working,” Gomez says. “We decided to err on the side of being cautious.”
Long-term plans for WAJAC include support for the 2010 Winter Olympics, to be held just over the border in Vancouver, Drake says.
As with other homeland security efforts, Washington State’s effort is still young, but it is off to a strong start not just because of funding or technology, but because of sheer will, says Eric Holderman, former executive director of King County Emergency Management and now a private consultant with ICF International. “I think it’s still just getting going, but it has worked based on the fact that people are willing to get together and put aside their petty differences,” he says.
Gomez agrees, noting, “It’s a work in progress.” And they have both the work and the progress to show for it.
Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.