WASHINGTON - Local intelligence-sharing centers set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have had their antiterrorism mission diluted by a focus on run-of-the-mill street crime and hazards such as hurricanes, a government report concludes.
Of 43 "fusion centers," only two focus exclusively on preventing terrorism, the Government Accountability Office found in a national survey obtained by the Associated Press. Center directors complain that they were hampered by lack of guidance from Washington and they were flooded by often redundant information from multiple computer systems.
The original concept behind fusion centers was to coordinate the resources, expertise, and information of intelligence agencies so the country could detect and prevent terrorist acts. The concept has been widely embraced, particularly by the Sept. 11 commission, and the federal government has provided $130 million to help get them off the ground. But until recently, there were no guidelines for setting up the centers and as a result, the information shared and how it is used varies.
Centers in Kansas and Rhode Island are the only two focused solely on counterterrorism. Other centers focus on all crimes, including drugs and gangs, said the GAO, Congress' investigative and auditing arm. Washington state's fusion center, for instance, has an all-hazards mission so it can focus on natural disasters and public health epidemics in addition to terrorism.
"States are at different levels because there wasn't the preconceived game plan on how to do this," said George Foresman, a former undersecretary at the Homeland Security Department who oversaw the awarding of startup money for many of the centers.
The GAO findings backed up results from a congressional report earlier this year.
"Although many of the centers initially had purely counterterrorism goals, for numerous reasons they have increasingly gravitated toward an all-crimes and even broader all-hazards approach," according to a June Congressional Research Service report.
Most of the centers are run by state police or other law enforcement agencies, but many also have representatives from a wide range of other agencies, including fire and public works departments and state gambling regulators. This has raised concerns about privacy as those agencies become linked to a broader intelligence-sharing network. Most of the centers also include federal officials such as analysts from the FBI and the Homeland Security Department.
Some centers are even housed together with federal agencies, which can be a benefit. Minnesota's fusion center, for example, is in the same building as the FBI, which makes it easier for local officials to access the FBI's networks.
The centers can potentially tap into five federal databases containing case files on investigations, reports on suspicious incidents and research material on terrorist weapons and tactics. But not all of the facilities are in buildings that have adequate security to access those databases, GAO found.
Each fusion center is independent and not controlled by the federal government, and it was only last month that the Bush administration offered guidelines for the centers' missions and operations. The White House published a strategy paper advising fusion centers to share information about all criminal activity, saying the information could lead to uncovering a terrorist plot.
The federal government, however, still needs to do a better job of explaining what information it can share and how much money it will provide, GAO said.
At the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, watch commander Lori Norris said more federal money and guidelines could solve many of the center's frustrations. Arizona's fusion center has representatives from the state's public safety, motor vehicles and liquor control departments, as well as its National Guard and city and county fire departments and federal agencies.
The Arizona center cannot access some of the federal information systems because its building does not meet security requirements. "We would be able to, but again, we don't have the funding for that," Norris said.
In addition, Norris said she would like the government to pick one or two systems for sharing information - not the three or four currently used.
Many centers do not know what information to expect from Washington or how quickly they can expect to receive it.
"There's got to be a clearer definition as to when that information goes out and who it goes out to," Norris said.
It's not uncommon, she said, for law enforcement officers to learn of important developments first from the news media.