The Obama administration has pursued a program started under President George W. Bush that aims to share intelligence between federal, state and local law enforcement -- but critics have questioned its effectiveness.
Since 2003, more than 70 "fusion centers,” as they are known, have been established. These centers are intended to detect, disrupt, and respond to domestic terrorist activities.
According to DHS, fusion centers "serve as focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between the federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial and private-sector partners.” They are operated by state and local governments but supported in part by hundreds of millions of federal dollars and are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
"I believe that Fusion Centers will be the centerpiece of state, local, federal intelligence-sharing for the future and that the Department of Homeland Security will be working and aiming its programs to underlie Fusion Centers,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an address to the National Fusion Center Conference on March 11, 2009.
However, a bipartisan investigation by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded that the DHS's work with fusion centers "has not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.”
"The subcommittee investigation found that DHS-assigned detailees to the fusion centers forwarded ‘intelligence" of uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens" civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism,” the Senate panel concluded in a strongly worded and widely publicized report.
During the two-year probe -- overseen by subcommittee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- investigators learned that a 2010 study that had been requested by DHS, but not released publicly and initially kept from the Senate subcommittee, "found widespread deficiencies in the centers" basic counterterrorism information-sharing capabilities.” The subcommittee said that a 2011 internal review by DHS was "more positive” but even this report "indicated ongoing weaknesses at the fusion centers.”
DHS objected to the subcommittee report, telling the Washington Post that it was based on out-of-date data and saying that Senate investigators misunderstood the role of fusion centers, "which is to provide state and local law enforcement analytic support in furtherance of their day-to-day efforts to protect local communities from violence, including that associated with terrorism.”
The National Fusion Center Association also strongly objected to the subcommittee's report, saying it ignored the centers" benefits. "Simply put, the report displays a fundamental disconnect and severe misunderstanding of the federal government's role in supporting state and locally owned and operated fusion centers and the critical role that fusion centers play in the national counterterrorism effort,” the group said in a statement.
Adding to the conflicting claims, the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican of the full Senate committee -- Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, all but disowned the report produced by one of their subordinate committees, and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, R-N.Y., also spoke out forcefully against its conclusions.
"I strongly disagree with the report's core assertion that ‘fusion centers have been unable to meaningfully contribute to federal counterterrorism efforts," Lieberman said in a statement. "This statement is not supported by the examples presented in the report and is contrary to the public record, which shows fusion centers have played a significant role in many recent terrorism cases and have helped generate hundreds of tips and leads that have led to current FBI investigations.”
As we evaluate this promise, we give some weight to the Senate subcommittee's criticisms, since they were based on a lengthy, independent and bipartisan probe. However, we acknowledge that the strong objections by the department, other lawmakers and outside advocates make sweeping generalizations difficult. We conclude that the federal government has carried through on its promise to increase intelligence-sharing, but not without serious questions about its effectiveness. On balance, we rate this a Compromise.