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FEATURE ARTICLE  

Fusion centers aim to connect federal, state, local agencies 

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By  Stew Magnuson 

FusionCenterBALTIMORE – Capt. Charles Rapp, director of the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center, opened the door inside a nondescript office building on the outskirts of this city. No placard or sign outside gave away his office’s location.

Inside, a staff of federal, state and local law enforcement agency personnel manned phone lines and kept tabs on a 15-foot wide split television screen tuned into CNN, Fox News and a local news broadcast. The men and women standing watch have a common goal: to prevent terrorists from striking the United States again.

MCAC is one of about 20 state, local or regional “intelligence fusion centers” that has received Department of Homeland Security funding. The concept, being pushed by DHS and the Department of Justice, calls for states, regions or cities to gather representatives from all their law enforcement agencies under one roof, along with intelligence analysts and representatives from federal agencies.

While there is no formal definition of what constitutes a fusion center, and no congressional mandate directing states to create them, DHS has disbursed $380 million in grants to help fund them so far, and their numbers are growing.

While the ultimate goal is to correct the well-documented mistakes that led to the 9/11 attacks, the centers are increasingly being used to track crimes not typically associated with terrorism, said Rapp, who also serves as the chief of the Baltimore Police Department.

Founded in 2003, MCAC is one of the first fusion centers to get off the ground. “For almost all the agencies, this was new,” Rapp said in a meeting room where a large poster describing 28 international terrorist organizations hung on the wall. “Interaction between state, federal and local law enforcement had never happened before in a fusion center concept.”

The U.S. military and intelligence agencies have struggled to break down the so-called stove-pipes of information, often characterized by turf battles over who controls access to what top secret information. Prior to 9/11,the “stovepiping” between state, local and federal police agencies, was just as acute, Rapp said.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told police chiefs in a speech last year that the centers will seek to thwart “plots arising in local communities, involving local people, American citizens, who may become radicalized over the Internet or because of a recruiter…”

To put an end to the turf battles, the government-wide solution is currently the “fusion” concept — a bricks and mortar location where all stakeholders are represented, and can communicate face-to-face and build personal relationships while accessing some of the dozens of high-security law enforcement databases. The intelligence agencies have come together at the National Counterterrorism Center in Northern Virginia to keep track of multi-national threats. A pilot program, Project SeaHawk in Charleston, S.C., keeps tab on seaport security with representatives of Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, and state and local officials.

The concept, so far, is succeeding in Maryland, Rapp said. But the center had some growing pains.

“There was a lot of discussion about what [information] people would have access to, what they wouldn’t get access to. Sometimes, we’re still hammering out the finer parts of that, but for the most part, that all got worked out.”

Important for the operation’s success was ensuring that no single agency was seen as running the show, Rapp said.

The center’s staff of about 50 is made up of local law enforcement, state police and representatives from the FBI. Rapp, and the two previous directors, have come from the local law enforcement community. The watch commander has traditionally been a state police representative. Feds have run the analytic center.

“It was designed specifically that way so nobody could hang their hat on it and say ‘that’s a state police center, FBI center or any other entity,’” Rapp said. It’s also important that the leased office space is a neutral building unaffiliated with a specific agency, he added.

The center is also bringing in representatives from the firefighting/emergency services communities. At one time, it had a representative from the state health department. The staffer had to return to the department, but the center is hoping to add another to get a “holistic” view of the potential threats, he said.

“If you don’t get the buy in from all agencies, you miss pieces of the puzzle,” Rapp said.

Rapp pointed to one recent incident when two Baltimore police department officers were returning to the city after taking part in training at the state’s eastern shore. As they crossed the Bay Bridge, they spotted a woman riding as a passenger making a video. As they passed her, she quickly lowered the camera. The officers believed that her behavior was suspicious enough to pull her over and call in a state transportation police cruiser.

The officers called MCAC, which had access to federal databases. Within minutes they had a hit on the driver of the car, her husband, who was allegedly a member of the Palestinian group, Hamas, and was connected to a terrorism-related case in the Chicago federal judicial district. The driver was unindicted and not wanted for arrest, however, a district attorney asked that he be detained and returned to Illinois.

Prior to opening the center, that information would not have reached the officers in time. “More than likely the officers would have written their information down and they would have been on their way. Their involvement in Chicago wouldn’t have come to light until much later,” Rapp said.

Tips from state or local police officers can be crucial in unraveling a terrorist plot, Rapp, and other police officials, have said. A terrorist cell may be involved in other non-terror crimes to fund its activities. It’s the city cop, for example, who may enter an apartment on an unrelated call, and notice there is nothing inside but computers.

MCAC, and other fusion centers, are branching out to keep tabs on major crimes. Coupon fraud, evasion of state tax stamps on alcohol or cigarettes and identity theft, for example, can be used to fund plots. “You can’t really determine what type of crime is going to be related to terrorism,” Rapp said.

And while it was wholly unrelated to terrorism, MCAC assisted in the apprehension of a suspect wanted for murder in Maryland, who had fled to a small town in Kentucky. After he began calling Maryland police to taunt them, the center was able to tap into a database and determine that there was only a couple of payphones in the town, and the one he was calling from was located outside a motel. Within minutes, they alerted Kentucky state police who nabbed the suspect while he was still on the line.

A typical day at the center involves receiving tips from local law enforcement or from the public. Each shift has representatives from all agencies, including FBI agents who can access databases from computers in a restricted room.

The public may know of the center from the “Report Suspicious Activity”1-800 number flashed on signs along major roads. A staffer will then try to “deconflict” the information to determine whether it is valid. There are about 12 members of the public who have taken upon themselves to regularly call in their “suspicions.” Their information almost never checks out, Rapp noted.

If staffers can validate the information, the center can forward it to the agency involved and enter it into an FBI database. It may tie into a current investigation and be added to that file.

The report is forwarded to the analysts who look for patterns. If necessary, they may write up a threat assessment or an intelligence bulletin to be distributed to interested agencies. They also monitor open source information found in the media. If the threat is deemed urgent, there is the Rapid Reach telephone system that calls agencies to send alerts “so the bulletin isn’t sitting in someone’s in-box for hours,” Rapp said.

MCAC has also been using federal grants to train local and state analysts to “get them on the same page.” Many have done criminal intelligence, for example, but have no experience in terrorism analysis, he said. The center has also provided threat assessments for the governor’s inauguration and major sporting events.

The linking of databases is an ongoing issue, but one that is slowly improving, he added. “We feel we have a pretty good group of databases. We feel all we need to do the job now is just hooking them up and having them talk to each other so we don’t have to do multiple searches through multiple databases.”

Despite the efforts, 2006 saw a steady stream of criticism from state and local law enforcement officers who stated that critical information is not flowing in their direction.

Charles Allen, DHS intelligence officer, said if there is pertinent information, the department will find a way to quickly push it down to the appropriate officials, regardless of whether they have a fusion center.

“As far as sharing threat warning information … we find ways to share it, and share it immediately,” Allen told National Defense.

For top secret documents, DHS, Justice and the Defense Department are forming a federal coordinating group at the National Counterterrorism Center to find ways to vet source material for local officials. Allen is also leading efforts to install the classified homeland security data network terminals at fusion centers, or other state and local law enforcement offices.

Among the systems MCAC is using is the Defense Department’s secret internet protocol router network (SIPRNET), DHS’ homeland security information network (HSIN) and the Justice Department’s Guardian system, which allows users to enter, assign, and manage terrorism threats and suspicious activities. While not all staff members have clearances to access some of the higher level databases, there is always at least one federal officer on the premises with access, Rapp said.

The HSIN allows the center to link to other state and local fusion centers. However, DHS has been slow to realize the benefits of the 20 or so fusion centers creating its own network, Rapp said.

MCAC facilitated communication between California authorities when a woman died in Hagerstown, Md., from e-coli during an outbreak of disease. When a gunman attacked an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania near the Maryland border, MCAC was able to quickly establish through its counterpart at the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center in Harrisburg that it was a lone assailant, and not part of a terrorist plot. It was also able to offer Maryland’s resources to help in the aftermath.

“[DHS officials] are starting to recognize that there is a lot of value and a lot of efficiency in fusion centers talking to each other,” Rapp said. “We have data linkages with some centers, but a lot of it is still centered on personal relationships and phone contacts.”

DHS and Justice Department grants have allowed MCAC personnel to travel to other fusion centers to establish links. However, questions remain on how long centers will be able to pay for travel if the grants dry up, he said.

Allen said DHS always believed that networking among the centers would occur.

He has one DHS officer embedded at the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center, for example, who travels regionally to facilitate these links.

“This kind of networking, technical and social, is a very natural outgrowth as these centers gain structure, staffing and maturity… We obviously encourage it,” Allen said.

Please email your comments to SMagnuson@ndia.org

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