Fusion Centers – The Triumph of Mediocrity

The Homeland Security Policy Institute just released their findings of a survey they conducted earlier in the year of fusion centers to determine the capabilities and priorities of fusion centers.

The short version of their report*: After more than a decade, fusion centers remain a confused, unfocused mess that have little practical relevance and impact on the mission they were created to do.

Now, the longer discussion.

First, I could go on at length about their methodology but I won’t** other than to say I’m not exactly thrilled with it. Their survey involved questioning one person from each of the nation’s 77 fusion centers***. The survey designers weren’t too concerned with that since many fusion centers are very small (less than 10 people****) and so they were confident that the survey responses accurately reflected the ‘prevailing wisdom’ across the fusion center community. I’m not so sure about that and would read the results more as a bit of rose-colored view of them, based on how the survey respondents were contacted (via an interest group – The National Fusion Center Association) and the belief that any organization asked to take part in a self-evaluation survey is going to assign that survey to someone who shares (at least) a general outlook of what constitutes success.*****

But…let’s put that aside for now and delve into the findings and analysis.

I think a good way to look at this survey is to divide the questions into how respondents said they perceived the threat and their mission and then look at how they responded to questions about how their centers actually operated and were structured. The survey began by asking respondents questions about the nature of the threat. The questions were a bit clunky but there is some interesting stuff here, nonetheless.

Respondents were asked to rate the threat of terrorism to their ‘region’ on a 1-10 scale (one being no threat and ten being ‘Holy crap, they’re breaking down the door as I fill this survey out.’ Almost three-quarters rated the threat as a ‘five’ or higher***** and almost half rated the threat at ‘six’ or higher.

The next question asked who posed the greatest threat to their region. Respondents were given a choice of criminal and terrorist choices. Overwhelmingly, terrorists of various types were picked (the biggest majority were homegrown jihadists). Criminal threats were only cited 5% of the time as the ‘greatest threat’.

When asked who should have primary responsibility for counterterrorism (on a 1-10 sliding scale, 1 being local authorities and 10 being federal), more than a third gave a ‘5’ answer (sign) indicating a 50-50 split between the two in terms of primary responsibility.

Respondents were then asked to rate the importance of analysis to their operations. Half said it was either the most or second most (out of six) important priorities. (Don’t get too excited about this answer…Question 3 will reveal this to be pretty bogus).

So, most respondents indicated there was a moderate to high threat in their regions. The greatest threat came from terrorism and analysis was seen as very important to their operations.

Take a moment and do a bit of a thought experiment. If you had built a new agency from scratch (from 5 to 10 years ago, let’s say) in the sort of environment described above what would your expectations be in terms of answers about your agency to these questions:

  1. How often does your center conduct regional threat assessments?
  2. What are your most important sources of counterterrorism intelligence?
  3. Rate the importance of the following tasks from 1 (most important) to 6 (least important): Analysis, Dissemination, Gather/Receive information, Production of product
  4. Rate your center’s capabilities regarding the tasks above from 1 (most capable) to 6 (least capable)
  5. Which catagory best describes your (assume the survey is being answered by someone in a position of authority at the center) professional background (law enforcement, intelligence analysis, intelligence collection, policy management)?
  6. Provide the rank order of the following activities for your center from 1 (most important) to 5 (least important): Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, Prive sector and cyber security, Public safety/emergency response

So think about what you would expect (or want) those answers to be after a few years of operation.

Question 1: How often does your center conduct regional threat assessments? Let’s leave aside the fact that ‘regional threat assessments’ isn’t defined in any way so you could really fit a wide range of garbage into that term. Despite that, just about half of all respondents said they never conduct regional threat assessments.

What the fuck? How can you assess your threat if you never assess it? Is that the sort of response you would expect from people who say local agencies (which include fusion centers) should share primary responsibility for counterterrorism? Or that analysis is their number 1 priority? And remember, one of the fundamental tasks of fusion centers is identifying trends and understanding the threat. This is what is referred to today as an ‘epic fail’ and should be a big warning flag that what passes for ‘analysis’ in these centers is little more than regurgitation from what was heard around the watercooler or on CNN that morning.

Question 2: What are your most important sources of counterterrorism intelligence? I’d prefer if this question asked how often particular sources of information were used but there you go. About three-quarters of respondents answered that either local law enforcement or Joint Terrorism Task Forces were the most important sources of counterterrorism intelligence. That may be true but I have deep suspicions that fusion centers are looking for sources of intelligence beyond those two sources. There’s a huge law enforcement bias within fusion centers and information coming from those without a badge and a gun is usually regarded as second class. What was very interesting is that less than 10% of respondents said that their own centers’ analysts were their most important source on intelligence. That is shocking.

Perhaps I was spoiled from my military experience but in a properly functioning unit the first question the commander should ask when presented with an intelligence question or issue is ‘Where is my S2?’ (that’s the intelligence section). If your overlord is asking everyone but you, that’s a problem. Maybe with her or maybe with you but it’s not a sign of a healthy organization. Another HUGE red flag.

Also interesting to note was that the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center ranked even lower. Even more interesting was that NO ONE said that other fusion centers were the most important source of such information and it’s high point was that 6.5% of respondents ranked it as the third most important source of counterterrorism intelligence. Ladies and gentlemen, if you need an indicator that fusion centers are near worthless when it comes to intelligence, just look at the fact that fusion centers don’t even regard each other as being valuable in that regard.

Question 3: Rate the importance of the following tasks from 1 (most important) to 6 (least important): Analysis, Dissemination, Gather/Receive information, Production of product. This should be a ‘gimme’, right? After all, we already looked at a question like this and half of all respondents said analysis was either their ‘highest’ or ‘second highest’ priority. This is, as the man once said, a slam dunk, right? Well, not so fast.

Analysis was ranked third in terms of ‘most important’ when ranked with other tasks (behind gathering/receiving information and dissemination). So, I think we can safely say that the first question was an example of ‘Everything is my number 1 priority!’ instead of any real thinking about how important analysis is. In other words, disregard that answer. If you want some good news, many people (I’m guessing around 45% – hard to tell based on the graphs in the report) said that analysis was the #2 priority. Of course, all that means that roughly 40% of respondents thought analysis was third, fourth or fifth in terms of importance. Getting those sorts of rankings is how you end up with centers created to ‘fuse’ intelligence not doing basic things like threat assessments.

Question 4: Rate your center’s capabilities regarding the tasks above from 1 (most capable) to 6 (least capable). So, your fusion center is up and running. One of it’s primary functions is analysis. Let’s say it’s evaluation time, too. Hypothetically, if your center’s analytical capabilty was given a rank of ‘4’ on this scale, how happy would you be with the people in charge of your analytical shop? You think they’d be on the top of your list for fast track promotion? Well, the overwhelming majority of respondents ranked their analytical capability at ‘3’ or lower and ‘4’ or lower got the lion’s share of that. It looks like perhaps two or three fusion centers (out of 71) ranked their analytical capability as a ‘1’. Granted, not everyone answered every question but if you didn’t answer questions like these either a) you aren’t familiar with your center’s capabilties so why are you filling it out in the first place? It’s not exactly an indicator that fills me with confidence about the rest of your operation or b) you’re too chickenshit to answer the question.

Question 5: Which catagory best describes your (assume the survey is being answered by someone in a position of authority at the center) professional background (law enforcement, intelligence analysis, intelligence collection, policy management)? No surprise here. Almost 70% of respondents were law enforcement. More interesting would be to see what the breakdown in leadership in fusion centers is. I suspect it’s even more skewed towards law enforcement if you looked at all supervisory/decision making positions within centers. I have to admit, I’ve written about this so much it’s kind of boring me but it is important. From the authors of the report:

The presence of a predominant law enforcement background within the fusion centers leads to an emphasis on the immediate or strictly utilitarian value of information…Case specific tactical experience…must be balanced with contextual strategic understanding…At present, the fusion centers have too much of the law enforcement perspective and not enough of the analyst. This affects both the focus and the operation of the fusion centers. It leads background and bureaucracy to trump perception of threat.

My only quibble with the above is the phrase ‘perception of threat’. Analysis is more than just gut feelings and ‘perception’. Ideally, it’s judgements based upon information and processes that attempt to account for lack of information placed within a contextual framework. I would rewrite that to be: It leads background and bureaucracy to trump threat. That’s accurate.

Question 6: Provide the rank order of the following activities for your center from 1 (most important) to 5 (least important): Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, Prive sector and cyber security, Public safety/emergency response. Remember way back at the beginning of this post? Respondents said that terrorism was their greatest threat and that was ranked at moderate to high. So…another easy question, right. We, at least, know what #1 is going to be.

Oh! Sorry, you lost again. But you’ll get a version of the home game and a year’s supply of Turtle Wax.

Even though only 5% of respondents said crime was their greatest threat, 63% of fusion centers said ‘law enforcement’ was their ‘most important’ activity. Counterterrorism was regarded as most important by only 27% but that number is kind of bogus since that’s of question respondents not survey respondents. So, yet again there were fusion center representatives that seem to be unable to master the task of ranking items from 1 to 5. My guess is not too many of those would have put counterterrorism in the #1 spot so I think we can confidently say this disparity is even greater than the numbers in the report.

Think about this. Fusion centers see their most important work being something other than their greatest threat. But remember when they said they thought primary responsibility for counterterrorism should be a joint federal/local endevour? Ah, responsibility without accountability. That must be what we’re shooting for here. From the authors:

When asked a follow-on question about what shapes their rank ordering of their center’s most imporatn activities, most stated that such was the product of their center’s institutional pedigree…the key relationships and customer base they serve, the decisions of elected officials or senior decision-makers, …Of the thirty individuals who answered this question, none of them referenced the current of expected threat domain.

So, the next time you hear or read one of these yahoos talk about how their operations are ‘intelligence-led’ don’t believe it. You can’t do intelligence-led anything if centers look like the description of these answers.

And here’s where it all comes together. I do think these answers are representative in demonstrating the almost complete lack of self-awareness among those running fusion centers (individually perhaps but definitely institutionally) which leads to all this internal inconsistencies. Terrorism is our greatest threat but we’re going to prioritize something else. We think analysis is the most important task but we’re going to focus on building capabilities elsewhere. It’s not just that the emperor has no clothes…he’s not even the emperor. He’s just some dude telling you his crown is invisible too.

Look, if we were in year one or two of this grand fusion center experiment this could all be chalked up to growing pains and the working out of various kinks. But we’re entering into decade number two of this scheme now. I think we can safely say we’re coming to the end of the trial period. If they haven’t gotten their act together by now, they ain’t gonna.

But the authors of the report come to a different conclusion. They argue that more resources and effort needs to go into fusion centers. All they need is the appropriate tweeking and we’ll be ship-shape. I disagree and have to ask if that’s all that’s needed, what are they waiting for. The findings of this report aren’t really new or shocking. People have been identifying the same shortfalls at least for the past five years. But, we continue to see new centers opened along the lines of the old, failed ones. Yes, an emphasis on analytical training would be great but if work priorities are angled one way (towards short term crime activity) it doesn’t matter who your analysts are. The rot runs deeper.

I honestly believe we’d be better off to burn these things to the ground (no, that’s not a threat, please don’t put me on that list), disburse the personnel back to their home agencies and distribute the money currently going to fusion centers to those agencies directly. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea but it’s a better one than the status quo.

A good idea would be to take advantage of the current lull in serious terrorist activity and reconfigure these things from the ground up. Take away the intelligence function (which most centers can’t do anyway) from most of these centers and convert them to real time crime centers (able to provide support to anti-crime activities), then concentrate your analytical power into a very few regional centers that have an organic investigative (but not arrest) authority. Then, have them focus exclusively on terrorism (not crime or protesters) and off you go.

There’s other tid-bits in this report that support my position but I fear I’ve already gone on too long.

*You won’t find that in the report itself but I think a not too careful reading between the lines will get you to that conclusion.

**So few people are trying to look at fusion centers in a systematic way that I don’t want to sharpshoot someone for putting forth any good-faith effort in that direction.

***That’s right. We’ve got 77 of those things. Combined with ‘fusion-like’ entities (JTTFs, HIDTAs, etc.) we’re surely at double that. So, just to recap, the solution to problem of information sharing (caused by too many agencies not talking to each other) is to…create hundreds of new agencies that (as we shall see) don’t talk to each other.

****Keep this in mind. Fusion centers are frequently charged with keeping track of criminal and/or terrorist threats in an entire state or large metropolitan area. If you’re trying to do that with less than 10 people (not all of whom are doing intelligence work), good luck.

****It can be a little difficult saying that the organization you’re in is sub-standard if you have (or hope to) achieve some stature within that organization. After all, what would that say about their decision to hire/promote you?

*****On questions similar to this, the number of ‘5’ answers, in the exact middle of the scale, gives me pause. Is this just a bunch of weasle answers or honest opinions based on intelligence? I’m inclined to think the former but that’s just my gut feeling.

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