That Senate Fusion Center report (part 1)

Remember it?  Oh, how soon we forget.  Well, here’s what I’m talking about if you need a refresher.  I have, finally, gone through the whole report (download your own copy here) and wanted to talk about a some of the important issues it raises.

Now, before I go on, there is one important thing to mention.  This report confines itself to the role that fusion centers play in national couter-terrorism efforts and specifically how they plug into the Department of Homeland Security.  Now, those looking to rebut the report have pointed that out as a fatal flaw with the report.

Personally, I think those people should really just keep quite.  The last thing they want is someone actually looking to see if all those other claims about how effective and valuable fusion centers are actually true.

And in that regard, I’d suggest that many of the observations and shortfalls the committee identified can apply much more broadly than the committee intended.  While the fusion center contribution to national counter-terrorism efforts may look like ‘pools of ineptitude’, at least when talking about intelligence and analysis, it’s probably the aspect of what these centers do that’s most set up for success.

So, we’ll begin in talking about the value of ‘intelligence’ that gets produced and disseminated from fusion centers. The subcommittee’s report reported that many of the reports that made their way to DHS were ‘useless’.  It should be kept in mind that fusion centers produce a whole bunch of reports and only the *ahem* ‘best’ are deemed worthy of being sent to DHS.

Which means, while DHS may think they’re getting spammed with intelligence crap, there’s a whole wave of it flowing from fusion centers that doesn’t make the cut.  The art of regurgitating information, sometimes from open sources and other times from other agencies may not have been perfected in fusion centers but it is certainly getting a great deal of practice.

In part, this is due to another observation made in the report:  Using quantity of production as a metric to determine value.

In a couple of cases there was a lot going on, .  In a couple of others they were looking for stuff so they could wave their flag.

Fusion centers (like any agency that equates activity for achievement) focus on things that are easy to count.  So, that encourages two sort of bad behavior:

  1. producing intelligence products that aren’t relevant
  2. producing products that are identical (or nearly identical) to reports from other agencies

This leads to everyone’s inbox getting clogged with products and makes it difficult to sift through what deserves attention and what should be sent right to the recycle bin.

(As an aside, another way to boost numbers without doing any work is to forward someone else’s product with a cover note.  That allows an agency to throw its logo on things and get credit with no real investment.  What it means to customers is that they can very well get the same product many, many times.  Hardly efficient.)

Why do these centers produce so much crap?  In part it has to do with training.  Despite the endless pronouncements about how important intelligence is, analysts, investigators, and supervisors have few, if any, training requirements for working in intelligence shops.  There are federal recommendations for 40 hours of training for analysts but even if you could get everyone to adhere to that, 40 hours does not an analyst make.

It just seems strange that in the army I had to go through 14 weeks of training in order to be an entry level analyst.  That allowed me to sit in the same room with intelligence people and learn.  I certainly wasn’t considered capable of independent activity.

We wouldn’t feel comfortable is our police or firefighters were given 40 hours of training and sent out into the world.  And yet, intelligence personnel in many of these fusion centers, expected to contribute to the national counter-terrorism strategy are essentially thrown to the wolves and expected to figure things out.

That problem is compounded by a marked lack of leadership in most of these centers.  When it comes to counter-terrorism (and, to be honest, most aspects of intelligence) most the most critical shortfall is the lack of any real direction and prioritization.  Instead, we perpetuate the myth of ‘all crimes, all hazards’.  Given that many fusion centers contain fewer than a dozen people, the notion that you could have a shop which is tracking ‘all crimes, all hazards’ is patently ridiculous.

He who defends everything defends nothing.

But…picking priorities entails risk.  After all, pick the wrong thing and you might get held accountable for it.  Pretend to cover everything and you’re all set to lobby your elected representative for more money to ‘fulfill the mandate’.

More tomorrow…

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