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I Wish We Had Something That Would Help Us Share Information Better…. Oh Wait, We Do. Fusion Centers!

intelligence_feature_1Nearly a month after the terrorist attacks in Boston, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., made a claim that if timely, appropriate action was taken by the U.S. government we could have prevented the terrorist attacks.  Sen. Lieberman is referring here to information the federal government had prior to the attacks, which informed the U.S. government of the possible threat the Tsarnaev brothers posed to U.S. homeland security.  He wasn’t alone in making such claims. Additional stories have also circulated about information withheld by the federal government that was never passed along to state and local officials. Russian authorities also claimed to have given the U.S. federal government information that would have given enough cause to seek out the Tsarnaev brothers, and detain them as terror suspects prior to the attacks.

However, hindsight is always 20/20, so it may not be fair to suggest the U.S. government would have stopped these men if it had acted on such information. On the other hand, is there room for improvement in how various governmental entities share information? Absolutely!


The Ever Expanding Need for Information

Whether or not the ball was dropped in the Boston case is difficult to determine when we consider how ambiguous information can be. Frequently, a particular piece of information fails to show its importance until a post event analysis connects the dots. Today the challenge facing the United States, and many other nations, is how to sift through massive amounts of information, analyze it all and then disseminate it collaboratively in order to facilitate timely and appropriate decisions.  When it comes to public safety, first responders must be well informed and provided with the necessary tools to protect and serve. The critical elements of public safety are prevention and intervention, which depend upon timely knowledge generation and collaborative decision-making.

Knowledge generation and the tools to drive decision-making are the result of information gathering and sharing. To that end, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice developed the Fusion Center Guidelines, a program designed to streamline the sharing of homeland security information among federal, state and local government officials. This program identified many improvements necessary for preventing future terrorist acts.  This program has resulted in State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers.


Where Do These Fusion Centers Live?

Fusion centers emerged from a collaboration of law enforcement and homeland security agencies. These agencies recognized the need to improve information gathering and sharing among all levels of government, with particular emphasis on enhancing coordination among federal, state, tribal and local agencies. Fusion centers are part of the Information and Sharing Environment (ISE) umbrella created by the United States Intelligence and Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. They were created to accomplish several goals in a post-9/11 world. First, there was a significant need for better preparation for local law enforcement and public safety agencies in threat detection and prevention. Second, there was a growing need to effectively share information and intelligence across all levels of government.


What Do Fusion Centers Actually Do?

Fusion centers are designated by states. There are two types of fusion centers. A state has one primary fusion center that serves as its central information sharing conduit and coordinator. A state may also designate recognized fusion centers, any center that is not its primary fusion center including major metropolitan area fusion centers. A list of fusion center locations can be found at http://www.dhs.gov/fusion-center-locations-and-contact-information. Explore Maryland’s Coordination and Analysis Center at http://www.mcac.maryland.gov for an example of a primary fusion center.

Fusion centers can be, but are not always, composed of on-site federal and state experts who collaborate with local officials. This collaboration increases the expertise from which the ISE is able to receive, filter, and disseminate threat information to local agencies. This, in turn, helps officials determine the likelihood of threats with greater accuracy.

A fusion center uses a four part model that delineates the main roles of public administrators engaged in threat detection and prevention:

  1. Receive: Receive both classified and unclassified information across federal sources.
  2. Analyze: Assess threats through a formal risk assessment process.
  3. Disseminate: Extend dissemination through an elaborate network of other public and private sector entities within each fusion center jurisdiction.
  4. Gather: Promote local information that has been gathered and analyzed by sharing it upstream with federal partners.

These four steps identify the loop that is required for threat prevention- from the initial receipt of information, to analysis and dissemination, to comparison with locally generated data and information. The fusion centers represent opportunities to seamlessly link multiple layers and partners in detecting and preventing security and safety threats.

Do fusion centers mean we now have a system in place that enables us to prevent all terrorist attacks? Unfortunately, no. But it does mean that we as administrators currently have a system in place that empowers us to take action when needed.  Perhaps this system wasn’t used as effectively as it could have been in preventing the recent Boston terrorist attack.  It is up to us to improve this system that enables us to share timely information so we can provide the safety the public deserves. We may never be able to stop everyone who wants to hurt us, but we can attempt to correctly identify and respond to the red flags that will inevitably pop up. Red flags like someone living in our area that also just happens to be on an FBI watch list. In order to accomplish this, it will take all of us, public and private, federal and local, to make it happen.


Authors: Pat Moroney, Graduate Research Assistant, Pace University Web 2.0  Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute; Hillary J. Knepper, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Pace University; Christopher J. Godfrey, Ph.D. Director, Web 2.0 Interdisciplinary Informatics Institute Department of Psychology, Pace University.  Contact: [email protected]


Image courtesy of http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/Dec2010/intelligence_feature.




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