Monday, January 8, 2024

Fusion Centers: How They Started, How They're Going

Precursors to Fusion Centers

Prior to 9/11, the law enforcement agencies of many major urban areas had departments dedicated to gathering and analyzing intelligence related to very specific types of crime, such as gangs, white collar crimes, narcotics crimes, and organized crime. There was relatively little coordination among these departments or with state, tribal, or federal agencies, except through specialized networks such as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program.

Very few of these agencies specialized in counter-terrorism intelligence. One exception (Sullivan & Bauer, 2008) was the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department: their Terrorism Early Warning Group, formed in 1996, was designed to coordinate first responders (law enforcement and fire services) with LA County Health Services to gather, analyze, and share information related to domestic and international terrorism. The TEWG grew to include data sharing with state and federal agencies. Still, there were few formal relationships for sharing information between other TEW Groups.

Effects of the 9/11 Terror Attacks

This lack of specialized municipal counter-terrorist intelligence agencies changed after 9/11, when the Bush Administration called for the creation of "fusion centers" by state, tribal, and local governments. Modeled on TEW Groups, fusion centers would coordinate with and exchange data with each other as well as federal agencies such as the FBI, DHS, and the DOJ.

The document establishing fusion centers (NSC, n.d. 2007?) can be used as an operational baseline. The scope of information trafficked by fusion centers is delineated as: "all crimes with national security implications, and all hazards information (e.g., criminal investigations, terrorism, public health and safety, and emergency response) which often involves identifying criminal activity and other information that might be a precursor to a terrorist plot." [Emphasis added]

Although the type of information to be gathered by fusion centers was meant to be terrorism-related, note that criminal activity that might be a precursor to terrorism can be surveilled. Further, the guidelines for disseminating Federal information included sending information from federal down to state, local, and tribal levels.

From 2001 to 2010

Davis, et. al. (2010) describe how fusion centers evolved since their founding up to the year 2010. By 2010, fusion centers adopted formal agreements for data sharing between other fusion centers as well as with federal agencies. Local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies became serious collaborators with these federal agencies.

Also, by 2010, most fusion centers experienced enormous mission creep, moving from a counterterrorism and homeland security focus to an "all-crimes, all-hazards" focus. Agencies besides law enforcement and fire services, such as schools and public health departments, were encouraged to work with fusion centers.

Thus the "might be a precursor to a terrorist plot" loophole mentioned above was exploited.

Individual fusion centers' AO/AI expanded during this period as well, with some municipal centers covering the law enforcement agencies in multiple counties.

So intertwined are the agencies that it is possible for multiple law enforcement departments to pursue the same criminals at the same time, and resolving such situations is described as "deconfliction."

Fusion centers are owned and operated by state, tribal, and local governments, but receive federal support through training, personnel, technology, and funding through the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP). Davis, et. al. (2010) are concerned about the continuation of fusion centers after the current year's HSGP expires. The HSGP has been renewed annually since the report was published.

From 2010 to the Present

To see how fusion centers have evolved since (Davis, et. al., 2010), a snapshot of fusion center operation and scope can be gleaned from the NSISS, the National Strategy for Information Sharing and Safeguarding (DNS, 2012). Some changes include:

  1. The NSISS does not define particular categories or types of information that must be shared.
  2. More types of agencies are to supply information to fusion centers: "This information sharing mandate requires sustained and responsible collaboration between Federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, private sector, and foreign partners."
  3. Information is treated as a national asset, and departments and agencies have an obligation to share that information.

An interesting sentence in (DNS, 2012) is this: "In order to build and sustain the trust required to share with one another, we must work together to identify and collectively reduce risk, rather than avoiding information loss by not sharing at all."

Translating Fed-Speak to English, that comment roughly means that management wants workers to share information instead of hoarding it, as federal employees are wont to do so as to acquire personal power. For example, if the FBI and CIA had been more cooperative, 9/11 may have been averted. This gives considerable insight into the people working at fusion centers.


Mission creep and the desire by employees to accumulate power, combined with the lack of a clear definition of terrorism, has led to abuses of power. Examples of this are the types of people classified as terrorists in fusion center reports (Rittgers, 2011):

"The North Texas Fusion System labeled Muslim lobbyists as a potential threat; a DHS analyst in Wisconsin thought both pro- and anti-abortion activists were worrisome; a Pennsylvania homeland security contractor watched environmental activists, Tea Party groups, and a Second Amendment rally; the Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a fusion center in Missouri thought that all third-party voters and Ron Paul supporters were a threat; and the Department of Homeland Security described half of the American political spectrum as “right wing extremists.”"
Missing both from (NSC, n.d. 2007?) and (DNS, 2012) are criteria for success for fusion centers, so it is not clear whether fusion centers are fulfilling their intended purpose.


Davis, L. M., Pollard, M., Ward, K., Wilson, J. M., Varda, D. M., Hansell, L., & Steinberg, P. (2010). Long-Term Effects of Law Enforcement’s Post-9/11 Focus on Counterterrorism and Homeland Security. RAND Corporation.

DHS, (2012, December). National Strategy for Information Sharing and Safeguarding.

NSC. (n.d. 2007?). "Appendix 1 - Establishing a national integrated network of state and major urban area fusion centers".

Rittgers, D. (2011, February 2). "We're all terrorists now". Cato Institute.

Sullivan, J. & Bauer, A. (2008). "Terrorism early warning: 10 years of achievement in fighting terrorism and crime". Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

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