Prosecution vs. prevention: The prosecution/prevention dynamic is one of the key reasons that I’m generally pessimistic of the ability of law enforcement agencies to handle intelligence operations. Law enforcement and elected officials are all about demonstrating their effectiveness in keeping society safe. Their primary methods for doing that have been the domestic equivalent of body counts used in the Vietnam War to demonstrate progress: arrests and contraband seized. The problem is that while those metrics have a certain common sense appeal, they don’t necessarily point to any particular progress without a whole host of contextual information that in many cases just isn’t available. So, if we hear that $10 million is cocaine has been seized or 50 people arrested what exactly does that mean? Will drugs be harder to get on the street? Did crime rates decline as a result? Have the operations of criminal network A been seriously disrupted? In short, the problem is that we’ve internalized bad metrics to determine how successful we are. It’s become so bad that many can’t even conceive any alternative methods of determining success which then gives us quotes like this:
“The more successful you are, the less you have to show for it.”
When a state director of homeland security says something like that, you’ve got problems. Assuming that just because planes aren’t flying into buildings means you’re successful is setting yourself up for future failure. This is one area where lessons learned from our counter insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan can be helpful. We’ve recognized that body counts aren’t effective and so some within the military have begun looking at the problem of terrorism and insurgency obliquely through many different quantifiable measures. How many tips come in from high risk populations? How engaged is the local population in the existing government (requiring a whole host of additional metrics like voting, using government services, etc.)? The prevalence of anti-government graffiti/leaflets in a specific area. There’s no reason why domestic agencies couldn’t take a bit of time and come up with their own metrics, test them for validity, and use those to determine progress rather than the old standbys of arrests and seizures. Yes, there might be dozens of metrics, it might be difficult to summarize them in a ten word sound bite but assuming the goal is to understand the environment we’re operating in and reducing the probability of being surprised by some sort of catastrophic event in the future this would be a big step forward.
My other problem with the quote above is that it makes the assumption that a lack of terrorist attacks is the result of work by the homeland security sector. Perhaps there are other reasons why terrorists haven’t launched attacks that have nothing to do with our attempts to thwart them. Unfortunately, if we aren’t looking, we’ll never know.
The Gravy Train:
“Many local administrators will be loathe to give up their big-ticket equipment items, previously paid for by grants in exchange for information or intelligence that may or may not prevent an attack that may or may not happen.”
Probably not unique to fusion centers but the drive to chase grant money and buy big ticket items first and then figuring out what role they might play in operations being a secondary consideration definitely makes intelligence work difficult. I was once asked to make a recommendation on a software system which would be purchased with eagerly anticipated grant money. I actually found a couple of alternatives that were superior to the proposed software that cost nothing. I actually expected that finding to be welcomed but instead was greeted as if I kicked the family dog. If we went with the free alternative after all, we wouldn’t be eligible for the grant money. I suspect that the phrase “Oversaw the purchase and installation of a $40,000 computer system” looked better on an evaluation than “Installed freeware and avoided the need for time spent on a needless grant application.”
The nature of the threat: Because of the lack of metrics of success (as currently defined) in the homeland security field, there is a tendency to exaggerate threats. Since we have so many fusion centers and state and local offices of homeland security everyone has to justify their existence by pointing out that the next big terrorist attack might just occur within their area of operations.
“His position was that many of the domestic plots that have been uncovered nationwide were unsophisticated, and considered to have minimal potential by some. Who would have thought, however, that nineteen guys with box cutters could have done what they did prior to 9/11?”
Utter nonsense. The 9/11 hijackers were not ’19 guys with box cutters’. They were a trained, well-funded group with a long logistical tail and chain of command . To compare them with the amateurs and weekend warriors who have been arrested domestically since then either reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat or is intentionally misleading. In either case, it’s not the sort of statement a state director of homeland security should be making.
Strategic vs. Tactical: As many agencies are beginning to flirt with the idea of incorporating intelligence into their operations their is a lot of confusion about what it exactly entails. One of the fundamental divisions within intelligence is between strategic and tactical focuses. Just as with the concept of intelligence generally, it is not at all clear how broad or deep the understanding of those focuses are. As discussed in Part 1, most regional/state/local agencies with a new (or not so new) intelligence capability are skewed towards tactical (case support) intelligence since that is what the agencies and the bulk of their personnel are most comfortable with. It is also the type of intelligence most likely to lead to those metrics of success I mentioned earlier (arrests, seizures, opportunities for photo ops).
Counter Terrorism vs. All Crimes, All Hazards: I’m not a fan of the idea of ‘All Crimes, All Hazards’ in fusion centers. It’s basically a sign that the leadership of the center couldn’t or wouldn’t make any decisions about what priorities the center should be working on and so punted. They may have done it because they don’t understand how intelligence works or an effort to wring more resources from elected officials by promising to do everything but it’s a bad idea. Remember: When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. That is why fusion centers (like all organizations) need a clear, explicit mission statement which identifies a limited number of priorities which can be adequately addressed with the resources at hand.
“…50 percent of the fusion centers felt that there was not enough purely counterterrorist activity to consistently support a fully staffed fusion center.”
I suspect that’s probably correct but I wonder if that statement is based on anything other than a gut feeling. If fusion centers are spending the bulk of their resources on case support or passing along bulletins and alerts from other agencies, how clear a picture of the operating environment do they really have? Perhaps, this should stimulate debate about whether we need so many fusion centers rather than build them and then try to figure out a mission for them.
“…everyday crimes can turn up information, especially crimes that can support terrorist operations.”
Sure, a lot of crimes can support terrorist operations but the idea of centers going through everyday crime data to uncover terrorist plots seems a bit of a reach. I just don’t see how the overwhelming amount of data that would have to be sifted through can be vetted and analyzed by the relatively small analytical staffs.
“Another potential hazard of following a purely terrorist approach is that if there were an insufficient level of meaningful work and analysts were not being challenged, not only would their skills erode but they might seek other opportunities. It is already very difficult for fusion centers to meet their staffing requirements; analysts often leave if they find the work unrewarding.
So now we need to keep fusion centers as a jobs program for analysts? If good, clear requirements are set and intelligence products are incorporated into policy and operations decision making analysts will be knocking down the door to work. In my experience, analysts jump ship when there doesn’t appear to be anyone at the till and the office is adrift (how’s that for some nautical imagery) or perceived to be irrelevant.
“…one way for fusion centers to show value is to “catch the bad guy.””
Again, this misses the point and seems to be saying that case support is the only value fusion centers can provide. How about intelligence for helping policy makers make informed decisions?
Prioritization: Very interesting concept of triage of tips and leads. I’m suspicious about its practicality in the face of bureaucratic interitia and excessive ‘CYA’ activities but worth looking into further.
Leadership: Leadership in fusion centers can be seen as an exercise in bureaucratic empire building especially when the center was formed from an existing agency, drawing heavily upon their personnel, leadership and management style. Fusion centers would indeed benefit from intelligence professionals who are skillful managers and possess excellent networking skills but it is very easy to view centers as additional opportunities to promote those who have no intelligence background, perspective or other useful skill apart from loyalty to the existing leadership and/or a desire to further the goals of their organization.
Analysts: The fundimental problem with analysts in fusion centers is that very often, those staffing centers aren’t sure what they’re looking for. They aren’t clear on what sorts of products are to be produced, what type of work is to be done or what skills are needed. This has led to analyst positions being filled by administrative staff, those looking to get a foot in the door in their quest to become a law enforcement officer, and others. Usually, hiring criteria for analysts includes a requirement to have an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, or some other specific major. I’m convinced that limiting analysts to specific majors is mistaken and that I could find people who could be brilliant analysts with degrees in literature, chemistry or geography. Critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, writing ability and comfort with technology are critical skills applicants should bring to the table and the rest can be taught.
Additionally, analysts usually go through no or minimal training after being hired, resulting in a generally low reputation among those who have had to go through lengthy training in academies or have extensive work histories. In the Army I had to go through 14 weeks of training to be an entry level analyst. Is it reasonable to expect people with no experience to jump right in and offer analysis on complex issues?
There is one well-travelled course for intelligence analysts called Foundations of Intelligence Analysis Training (FIAT). The course is well intentioned but it doesn’t do much to produce intelligence analysts. I won’t go into an in depth critique of the course here but it leaves graduates far from ready to perform analytical tasks. What FIAT and similar training does do is allow agencies to think they have trained analysts.
Lack of good training and ineffective selection procedures lead to analysts that don’t have the confidence to make judgements and predictions. In my experience, many analysts working within the law enforcement community (and I include fusion centers here) are so eager to please the powers that be that they often try to tailor their assessments to fit the party line. This is usually an unconsious process and many analysts have difficulty even conceiving that a different perspective might be more accurate or useful.