This post is about fusion centers.
Fusion centers are my favorite example of how emergence works in the complex adaptive system that is homeland security.
The story has often been told. Contemporary fusion centers started in a half dozen states and cities. Independently public safety officials perceived a need to organize and analyze various streams of information and intelligence. There was no grand national plan. Centers just emerged in response to a need. That was Phase I.
The federal government stimulated Phase II by offering Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention funds to states and cities that wanted to set up their own centers. The funds were accompanied by oral and written entreaties to standardize. Conceptually, this was an effort to bring regularity to a largely uncontrolled national experiment.
Money plus perceived need created an ideal growth medium for the fusion center ecosystem. There are now more than 70 fusion centers.
I don’t know when we entered the current Phase III, but like the economy, fusion centers have stopped growing. In the words of one federal official I spoke with this week, “Fusion centers are in jeopardy.”
Homeland security may be a complex adaptive system subject upon occasion to evolution’s “variation, selection and reproduction” ritual. But the people who make up that system are not the blindly obedient servants of a disinterested nature. They are agents of interests with — to varying degree — free will. Evolution of human systems can be affected by those humans. Not controlled, but influenced.
Serendipitously, I had the opportunity to speak with three people this week who are in the midst of fusion centers’ Phase III evolutionary dynamics. These are people who have a perspective about fusion centers and who are in a position to influence what happens to them. To influence, not control.
One person manages state budgets. Another is a federal executive trying to make fusion centers work across the country. The third person runs a state fusion center.
What follows is a summary of the words they spoke this week, via email, telephone and in person.
The state budget manager: Sustainment funding should be a baseline capability
“I am in a meeting listening to a presentation by a very nice gentleman from [a state] Fusion Center. The speaker is speaking now about the lack of funding to sustain regional centers and the state center. I have a brief discussion with him about this issue.
He thinks I’m nuts.
What I don’t understand is why neither he nor anyone else seems to understand the fundamental issue with these and other programs that are initiated with grant dollars.
Federal grant funds can allow state agencies to bypass their normal state funding and program approval processes. States get appropriations for federal grant dollars through their legislatures often without specific capitol projects or programs being debated or discussed and often without studies to determine the sustainment costs and budgetary impacts on states or local governments. So a state police agency stands up a “fusion center” using grant dollars. But sustainment is not in their budgets. After operating for a year or two, these facilities find that maintenance, system refreshments and personnel costs begin to affect their operating budgets. They also find their host department’s budgets are being cut because of state or regional economics. And they, including the speaker I’m listening to, suggest that perhaps the feds should fund state fusion centers. I contend doing that would make them federal fusion centers.
I suggested that state or regional fusion centers should not be built or operated if they cannot be supported by regional revenue. The response was that they are already built and should be sustained. Why? If there is value they should be in the host agency’s budget. Isn’t this why there is a deficit? Someone should be looking into the governance issues associated with the homeland security grant funded programs in the various states. I suggest that fusion centers should not be constructed without a mechanism for sustained funding by their host government. There is a fusion center fad right now that seems irrational.
I think the speakers think I’m crazy, but isn’t there more than one way to do fusion, or must we build expensive facilities for this purpose?
Someone needs to point out that we are heading down the road of implementing programs for the sake of programs, and that the grant funding model that we have facilitates the ability of agencies to implement programs without the full support and checks and balances associated with existing funding mechanisms in governments. Few city councils or legislatures are going to refuse grant dollars. But they don’t realize that they are being used to stand up programs that they (councils or legislatures) will be expected to fund in the future.
The feds have published fusion center guidelines and baseline capabilities. They work with states to make sure that their fusion centers meet this guidelines in order to get DHS support and involvement. Sustainment funding should be a baseline capability or at least a guideline for an approved fusion center.”
The federal executive: Fusion centers contribute to national security
“Many fusion centers started because of grants that helped states build intelligence and information sharing capabilities. Then came declining budgets and the economy. Everybody’s hit hard. Yeah, a lot of the centers are in jeopardy, very much so. That is why its important for them to show their relevancy, why they are important, and the value they add. Because if they add value and somebody wants to shut them down, well they’re not going to let them shut down and then have to deal with their constituency. That’s why its important to build toward standardized baseline capabilities.
I’ve heard it said that ‘If you’ve seen one fusion center you’ve seen one fusion center.’ That’s total nonsense and it’s counterproductive, because it’s not true. Nor should it be true. This is why the federal government needs to work with states and locals to help them build toward baseline capabilities. FEMA, DoJ and I&A have done some good things related to technical assistance [to fusion centers] with connectivity, training, privacy, civil rights and helping to build that value added. But the federal government can only do so much. It’s also up to the states and major urban area fusion centers to build the capabilities. But we’ll help them.
I support an increase in financial support for fusion centers. But it needs to be a blend. While states and cities have to carry their weight, there is also a federal responsibility here. There needs to be a fiscal balance because fusion centers add value at a state and local level. But fusion centers are also contributing — significantly sometimes — to national security. So the federal government should help pay the bill.”
The fusion center director: trying to get out of Dodge
“I’ve come to the view that the idea of us guessing when the next attack is going to occur from the fusion center perspective is just not going to happen. I’m fooling myself by trying to guess what the next dot is I have to connect. I know I have been a huge proponent of prevention, but it’s also ok to respond to something as long as you respond in a timely manner.
To me, that changes the paradigm of fusion centers as well as homeland security. We know that police and fire are tuned up to be responders, so why not leverage what we are good at? I’m not saying intelligence goes away. By no means am I saying that. Intelligence can become more of a contextual basis for what may be happening or what may happen. It can provide us with strategic situational awareness.
Intelligence fusion centers can contribute to the Orient stage of the homeland security OODA loop. The function of intelligence should be to help an agency process through its OODA loop at a much more rapid rate. Using intelligence this way adds to our resilience.
That’s my theory. But there is also a practical reality: in this economy, I can’t hire analysts. I can’t get funds for any collaborative platforms for wikis or other tools. And it’s not going to happen any time soon now, not with what’s going on fiscally.
I certainly want to win here. I want to prevent terrorism. I want to put numbers on the board. But I’m not stupid either. I have got to chose my battles.
It’s like George Washington. Once he kicked the ass of those Hessian soldiers he said, ‘You know what, I gotta get out of Dodge and scram. I got to get back across the river.’ He did that because the other Hessians were heading in to help. And right now I’m just trying to get out of Dodge.
I’m nervous now. I’m really serious about and committed to fusion centers. But we’re finding out there’s a lot of things we can’t control, for a variety of reasons.
You know a lot of folks have forgotten about the catastrophe and consequences of 9/11. And it’s really not driving budgets right now. I still believe in fusion centers but there’s more happening on the criminal side. I see the really cool things we are doing with mashing information and data. I just don’t see it happening to the degree, to the level it should be happening with [the terrorist] threats. It is making me very nervous.”