The 9/11 Commission urged better collaboration among government agencies. As officials realized that a terrorism tip was as likely to come from a local police officer as the CIA, fusion centers became a hot topic.
But putting people together to share intelligence proved complicated. Special phone and computer lines had to be installed. The people reading the reports needed background checks. Some information could only be read in secure areas, which meant construction projects.
All of that cost money.
Meanwhile, federal intelligence agencies were under orders from Congress to hire more analysts. That meant state and local agencies had to compete for smart counterterrorism thinkers. And federal training for local analysts wasn’t an early priority.
Though fusion centers receive money from the federal government, they are operated independently. Counterterrorism money started flowing to states in 2003. But it wasn’t until late 2007 that the Bush administration told states how to run the centers.
State officials soon realized there simply wasn’t that much local terrorism-related intelligence. Terrorist attacks didn’t happen often, but police faced drugs, guns and violent crime every day. Normal criminal information started moving through fusion centers.
Under federal law, that was fine. When lawmakers enacted recommendations of the 9/11 Commission in 2007, they allowed fusion centers to study ‘‘criminal or terrorist activity.’’ The law was co-sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, the driving forces behind the creation of Homeland Security.
Five years later, Senate investigators found, terrorism is often a secondary focus.
‘‘Many fusion centers lacked either the capability or stated objective of contributing meaningfully to the federal counterterrorism mission,’’ the Senate report said. ‘‘Many centers didn’t consider counterterrorism an explicit part of their mission, and federal officials said some were simply not concerned with doing counterterrorism work.’’
When Janet Napolitano became Homeland Security secretary in 2009, the former Arizona governor embraced the idea that fusion centers should look beyond terrorism. Testifying before Congress that year, she distinguished fusion centers from the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces that are the leading investigative and analytical arms of the domestic counterterrorism effort.
‘‘A JTTF is really focused on terrorism and terrorism-related investigations,’’ she said. ‘‘Fusion centers are almost everything else.’’
Congress, including the committee that authored the report, supports that notion. And though the report recommends the Senate reconsider the amount of money it spends on fusion centers, that seems unlikely.
‘‘Congress and two administrations have urged DHS to continue or even expand its support of fusion centers, without providing sufficient oversight to ensure the intelligence from fusion centers is commensurate with the level of federal investment,’’ the report said.
And following the release of the report, Homeland Security officials indicated their continued strong support for the program.