What do black holes and fusion centers have in common?

They both suck in all the matter around them and nothing can escape…

Back in 2007, the Congressional Research Service wrote this report titled: Fusion Centers: Issues and Options for Congress.  While four years have passed since it was written I’ve kept a copy at hand and referred to it frequently over the years.

Now, Fusion Centers are the latest thing in the law enforcement/homeland security realm. There are more than 40 70 (and on top of that, who knows how many things I call ‘fusion like’ centers:  ‘real time crime centers’, HIDTAs, JTTFs, etc) of the buggers around the country and they act like big cash magnets (the DHS claims to have shelled out over $380 million in support of fusion centers as of December of 2006).

What are fusion centers supposed to do?

The value proposition for fusion centers is that by integrating various streams of information and intelligence, including that flowing from the federal government, state, local, and tribal governments, as well as the private sector, a more accurate picture of risks to people, economic infrastructure, and communities can be developed and translated into protective action. The ultimate goal of fusion is to prevent manmade (terrorist) attacks and to respond to natural disasters and manmade threats quickly and efficiently should they occur.

That’s a pretty hefty mandate. The real challenge is that such a center requires a robust intelligence function yet very few people involved, at any level, of fusion centers has experience in intelligence or even has a clear concept of what intelligence work is. Instead, fusion centers tend to be planned, run and staffed by people with law enforcement backgrounds. While it may not be readily apparent those are two totally different fields that often work at cross purposes (as Richard Posner has written about quite eloquently), a whole host in institutional and cultural factors work on law enforcement agencies to prevent them from doing just the sort of intelligence work that is required for fusion centers to work to their potential.

So what does this mean in practical terms? Fusion centers end up becoming bloated, paper-shuffling exercises that exist primarily to 1) generate promotional opportunities for the people it employs and 2) generate revenue for the owning agency via state and federal grants. That means a whole lot of self promotion and flat screen TVs and very little intelligence work.

Most of the products you see come out of Fusion centers consist of recycled ‘alerts’ whose main purpose is to provide enough ‘CYA‘ so that no one will be held responsible if something bad happens but without any real information that would enable decision makers to allocate resources, take precautions or change priorities.  In many cases, high quantity is used as a mask for low quality.

And those are the ‘good’ products of fusion centers.

Way back in 2007 I wrote that fusion centers also were widespread disseminators of urban legends, politically biased information and shoddy analysis. All of which, would then be passed along as true and then forwarded through other fusion centers giving it increased credibility.  Things aren’t quite as bad today but I fear much of that has been replaced with forgettable blandness.

S0me of the big problems remain firmly entrenched to this day.  One, for example, is the insistence that fusion centers focus on ‘all crimes/all hazards’ which creates a fiction that an organizations with a handful of personnel can monitor and analyze ALL threats to an entire state.  Think about that for a minute.  It’s simply not possible.  That means that while maintaining a facade of ‘all crimes/all hazards’, fusion centers in fact are focusing on ‘a few crimes/a few hazards’ and, because of the ideological box they’ve trapped themselves in, they are unable to admit it.  In the military, this sort of thing is called ‘mission creep’ and rarely ends well.  We’ll see how this plays out domestically.

Now, those are just my personal observations. The report has it’s own critique of fusion centers across the country and they don’t paint a particularly good picture either.

It could be argued that if information flow into fusion centers is limited, the quality of the information is questionable, and the center doesn’t have personnel with the appropriate skill sets to understand the information, then the end result may not provide value.

The CRS is very polite in this report. My only recommendation when reading it is to replace the phrase ‘It could be argued’ (and similar phrases) with ‘No one in their right mind would argue that this isn’t true’

BUT…one observation I can make is that despite the many structural problems involved with fusion centers I’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm and motivation of analysts that staff these centers.  The raw material for running efficient and effective intelligence shops is, more often than not, in place.  The challenge is the institutions and leaders who have different (and often competing interests) and structural obstacles that reflect a culture with little orientation to intelligence operations.

It’s a very thoughtful, well-written report…check it out.


Posted on 14 July 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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