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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.

Is there a role for intelligence in the law enforcement world?

Way back in 2006, Studies in Intelligence had a book review by Richard Posner about the intelligence community in the post-9/11 Commission Report world.

He (and the reviewer) focused exclusively on the federal level but some of his comments about why the FBI has had such difficulty assuming the role of ‘intelligence agency’ are equally relevant to those in other law enforcement agencies attempting to introduce an intelligence component to operations.  By just about all accounts the FBI has made some impressive strides towards incorporating intelligence into their operations.  It took a very long time (too long) and the process isn’t complete but progress is being made.  I’m not the same can be said throughout the whole community.  So, while this was written half a decade ago, just replace the terms ‘FBI’ and ‘the bureau’ with your own agency and see how well these statements fit…

Posner asserts that there is a “crisis” in domestic intelligence because the FBI is proving that it cannot discharge its new intelligence duties. His evidence is mostly anecdotal, but it is also supported by history. The FBI, according to Posner, is in its eighth year of reorganization, and, despite protestations that it has “got it” this time, Posner argues that as a law enforcement agency, the Bureau will never be able to “change its culture” and embrace the intelligence mission. Posner describes at length the many differences between law enforcement and intelligence: law enforcement performance is measurable, intelligence is not; law enforcement seeks to make (countable) arrests and (countable) convictions, while intelligence wants to surveil and analyze and understand. He gives real-life examples including the so-called Lackawanna six case. For Posner, the intelligence mission is diverting the FBI from its real calling.

The Bureau structure is inherently decentralized and the Bureau’s 56 field offices essentially work for the Department of Justice’s 96 US Attorney’s Offices, which are scattered across the country. Since most crime is local and prosecuted locally, the provincialism of the FBI’s field offices is rational. If you add to that the fear that FBI agents have, according to Posner, that others will steal their cases and the fact that the judicial system discourages committing to paper or sharing data that can be discovered by defense attorneys, then you can understand that the nature of the FBI’s undertaking gives rise to cultural norms that are antithetical to intelligence work

There are other problems. The Bureau is accustomed to investigating crimes that have been committed, less so to the idea of gathering data or pursuing leads in an environment in which no law has been broken. (Presumably counterintelligence investigations are an exception).

The Bureau incorrectly believes that intelligence is a natural outgrowth of traditional criminal investigative practices. Criminal investigations are after-the-fact reactions to specific events, and their scope is limited.…The process is remote from the collection of bits of evidence relating…to quite speculative threats and from the interpretation of that evidence with the aid of…analytical techniques.

The Bureau is interested primarily in arrests, but such arrests not only potentially compromise greater understanding of the networks or leadership of terrorist enterprises but they can alienate US Muslim communities whose good will is key to penetrating terrorist conspiracies.

Posner adds to his case that the Bureau is unlikely to successfully undertake terrorist intelligence by rehearsing stories about the Bureau’s current problems. These includes accounts of troubles in starting up an intelligence shop; the rapid turnover of officers working in intelligence; the lack, presumably inevitable, of intelligence experience; the hiring of clerks to do analysis and the treatment of them as clerks; the so-so reputation of bureau-led joint terrorist task forces; the continuing complaints of local law enforcement; and the latter’s setting up of their own intelligence operations. He says the Bureau will be unable to change its culture, because it is still by mission a law enforcement agency and the two cultures are incompatible.

Posner’s solution is to create a seperate domestic intelligence agency that has no law enforcement powers. He argues that while such an idea might be met with hostility by civil libertarians the cold, hard fact is that intelligence operations are already occurring domestically.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that (particularly at the sub-federal level) independent intelligence agencies are probably the way to go.   The forseeable future will see a continued push for more domestic intelligence operations, not less. The problems of doing intelligence in a law enforcement culture are legion and the lack of real progress across the community in 10 years is not encouraging.  That being the case, we’re probably better off centralizing such operations and developing clear policies and procedures rather than allow every municipality to try to become mini-CIAs. We don’t want to return to the bad times of the 60s and 70s and recent reporting (and some common sence) indicates the danger of agencies without a solid understanding of intelligence trying to jump on the bandwagon.

I’m not sure the domestic intelligence agency Posner seems to be advocating needs to be a federal one and, in fact, state level agencies might be an alternative. States across the nation have been receiving lots of federal money since 9/11 in order to create ‘fusion centers’ which, for the most part, haven’t done a whole lot other than buy a lot of flat screen TVs, keep a variety of contractors employed and issue press releases about how cool fusion centers are. The creation of most of these centers has been the result of the availability of federal money rather than any sort of overarching vision of how such centers could/should actually work. Perhaps there is some way these fusion centers could be transformed to take over the role of a non-law enforcement domestic intelligence agency.