Fusion Centers as Buffers: Re-Examining the Role of State and Local Organizations in Securing the Homeland and Safeguarding Civil Liberties

by Andrew Coffey, PhD

In Constructing the Suspicious: Data Production, Circulation, and Interpretation by DHS Fusion Centers, the authors introduce findings from a three-year study of state and local agencies that gather, analyze, and disseminate intelligence across an inter-organizational network. A majority of these fusion centers receive and analyze suspicious activity reports (SARs) as part of the Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI), which is coordinated at the federal level. The article suggests that the subjectivity involved in the SAR process could lead to violations of civil liberties, such as racial profiling. Their prescription is a context-oriented analytical culture fostered through relationships between fusion centers and their communities.

The article joins a body of work in the emerging scholarly literature on fusion centers (see Waxman 2009, Newkirk 2010, Citron and Pasquale 2011, Jones 2011, Regan and Monahan 2013, among others), which raises important questions about the balance between intelligence gathering, accountability, civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy protections in the post-9/11 era. Although this article focuses mainly on the collection and analysis of SARs, its findings are broadly applicable to many other collection activities by domestic intelligence agencies at all levels of government, not just fusion centers.

Before discussing the merits of the article, however, it is important to clarify several points regarding the role of fusion centers and the SAR process. First, the authors refer to “DHS Fusion Centers”—a common mistake in media reports and online forums—but fusion centers are not federal entities, and the federal grant funding they receive is limited (Ashley 2012). Second, although the authors cite a 2012 congressional report that was largely critical of DHS and fusion centers, the 2013 Majority Staff Report on the National Network of Fusion Centers describes the network as a “National asset” that has yet to reach its full potential. This same report found the network’s strengths to include jurisdictional expertise and independence from the Federal Government.

Notably absent from the text are any mentions of success stories involving concerned citizens who “saw something,” then “said something” to authorities about suspicious behaviors. In some instances, like the attempted car bombing in Times Square or the arrest of an individual who was attempting to build two bombs and detonate them at a restaurant in Texas, vigilance on the part of the “citizen auxiliary” (Greenburg 2005, 229) was all that stood between would-be terrorists and the loss of human life.

Finally, in regard to the SAR process, the NSI provides resources related to privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties protections, some of which are publicly available on the NSI website. Fusion center analysts that handle SAR data must undergo specialized NSI training on standards and privacy protections, and NSI guidelines require that fusion centers review SARs in order to ensure those without a nexus to terrorism are not referred to other agencies or added to the national database. Finally, a recent 2015 study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) found that the categories of SAR indicators are consistent with extremist crimes and terrorism-related indictments from two separate datasets.

This article does, however, accurately identify the key role that fusion centers are playing by fostering a context-oriented analytical culture. Due to the juxtaposition between local communities and the federal intelligence apparatus, fusion centers and their analysts are well situated to serve as guardians of the public interest—a role they appear to be embracing.

Although only briefly mentioned in the text, liaison officers serve as critical human links between fusion centers and their jurisdictions. These officers often go through a formal vetting process, specialized training, and may even spend time in the fusion center. (For more information on liaison programs, click here; for an example of a fusion center liaison officer program, click here.) Their job is simply to facilitate the flow of information, including SARs, from the street level to the fusion center, and carry information back to their communities. Liaison officers may be local business owners, first responders, critical infrastructure owners/operators, or representatives of community groups. While the degree to which liaisons are engaged by fusion centers varies by jurisdiction, these individuals are critical to overcoming the challenges raised in the article.

Future scholarly research should pick up where this article leaves off by addressing two key areas. First, new technologies are re-defining the way information is gathered and processed around the world, and will further test the domestic intelligence community’s ability to balance security and privacy here at home. As noted by van Brakel and de Hert (2011), local law enforcement plays a key role in fostering trust within communities—a topic of much debate in light of recent police shootings and racial tensions across the United States. Scholars should engage domestic intelligence practitioners with the aim of building datasets that explore trust-building relationships between police, fusion center analysts, and the general public.

Second, scholars should try to better understand the extent to which local fusion centers are acting as a buffer between the practice of domestic intelligence and their communities (see Thacher 2005; Greenberg 2005). As already mentioned, fusion centers are well positioned to support, if not lead, this effort. Future scholarship could inform the practitioner community by gathering data on current practices, and identifying ways in which fusion centers may become even more effective in public engagement on SARs and other intelligence processes.

The good news is that fusion centers are already taking deliberate and positive steps that align with the authors’ recommendations. In addition, the national network has taken great strides in sharing best practices at forums, conferences, or through virtual channels and other joint efforts. While there are legitimate concerns regarding individuals who may be unfairly targeted through suspicious activity reporting, it would be unfair to characterize the domestic intelligence community as apathetic towards the need for protections. Scholars can do the domestic intelligence community a service by continuing to gather and analyze data on the role of fusion centers in the intelligence process while also working with practitioners to better understand their role as a buffer to the inherent frictions between security and liberty.

Dr. Andrew Coffey is a Senior Analyst for Policy and Research at IEM, a global security consulting firm specializing in homeland security, emergency management, defense, and information technology. He has recently completed research on the national network of fusion centers that included numerous interviews and surveys, as well as in-person visits to two fusion centers. The research also involved coordination with the National Fusion Center Association (NFCA) and interactions with 27 different fusion centers from 2013-2015. Dr. Coffey holds a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Policy from the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech, and can be reached for comment at andrew.coffey@iem.com.

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