That Senate Fusion Center Report (Part 3)

Part 2

The report concludes with an evaluation of fusion center ‘success stories’. On their website , the DHS advertises a number of ‘success stories’ that supposedly highlight the importance of these centers in the counter-terrorism mission. It identifies 23 such cases. Keep in mind that fusion centers have been around since 2001ish, there are currently more than 70 of them (no one could get a straight answer as to exactly how many of these centers there are) and the federal government has poured in between $300 million to $1.5 billion dollars into them (again, no one seemed to thought that keeping track of expenditures was particularly important).

Of those 23 cases, more than half (14 in total) clearly had no nexus to terrorism. These included things like (and I’m not kidding):

  • Fusion Center Contributes to Decrease in Auto Theft (Let me guess…by having all employees lock their car doors?)
  • Fusion Center Enables a Teenage Runaway to Return Home Safely (What did they do, buy her bus fare for her?)
  • Fusion Center Supports Federal Partners through the Use of Facial Recognition Queries (translation: made a database query)

The bottom line is that these ‘successes’ are all things that could be done even if fusion centers never existed.

Ten years….72 facilities…hundreds of millions of dollars and what do they have to show for it? They helped a runaway get back home.

But wait, I can hear you say, what about the 9 ‘terrorism-related’ cases? Stopping one 9/11 would make this whole endeavor worth it, right?

Glad you asked.

Of the nine events I labeled ‘terrorism-related’ (and I was trying to be generous here), none were involved with disrupting plots but rather with supporting investigations that had already begun. And that brings me to a point I’ve been hammering away at for awhile. In none of these cases was there any real analysis going on. Rather (based upon the descriptions by DHS and the subcommittee’s deeper look into four of the ‘best’ cases) fusion centers were used to do database checks, information sharing and perhaps some tasks considered ‘entry-level’ analysis (link charting, PowerPoint summaries of case information, etc.).

So, let’s stop trying to teach a dog to wear cloths and walk on its hind legs. To paraphrase Mr. Johnson, even if we can get them to do it, it won’t be done particularly well. Pull the analysis function out of fusion centers and leave them to do the information sharing and case support functions. They’ve demonstrated they can do those reasonably well, it’s what they’re comfortable with and we can stop wasting resources doing the other stuff.

Then…concentrate analytical resources into regional centers. You have a much better chance of achieving a critical mass of analytical talent to actually get some substantial work done. If you remove the component of those centers that have actual arrest powers you can get off the hamster wheel of arrests and seizures as a metric for success.

But beyond these *ahem* successes, the subcommittee also found evidence of fusion center work that hindered investigations and at least one instance where fusion center work could have led to serious international problems. You may remember I wrote about this incident here but what I didn’t know at the time is that while the DHS was publicly distancing itself from the fusion center’s assessment, it was also referencing the same, incorrect, report in its own products. AND, it never issued a correction.

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