America’s radically decentralized law enforcement system—there are more than 17,000 separate police departments in the United States—is both a strength and a weakness. It is a great strength because the police are better attuned to their local communities and are directly accountable to their concerns. But it is also a terrible weakness in the post–September 11 world, where information sharing is key, and the sheer number of agencies often inhibits information sharing.
Fusion centers – state and regional intelligence centers that pool information from multiple jurisdictions – are the primary platforms for improving law enforcement’s intelligence-sharing capabilities. In recognition of the importance of fusion centers, President Bush highlighted the work being done in these facilities during a recent speech in which he also called America’s 800,000 state and local police “the front line in defeating terror.”
Federal agencies are not built to be the eyes and ears of local communities; local law enforcement—with the right training and support—can be. Yet there is still much work to be done in order to fully enlist state and local law enforcement in the war on terror. As Los Angeles police chief William Bratton and Manhattan Institute senior fellow George Kelling wrote last year in a Manhattan Institute Civic Report titled “Policing Terrorism”:
Americans accustomed to television shows such as 24 and CSI think that law enforcement has all sorts of intelligence information at its fingertips. This could not be further from the truth. The unfortunate reality is that law enforcement—federal, state, and local—is very far behind the private sector in terms of the ability to use technology to gather, analyze, and disseminate information.... When you rent a car today at many airports, an attendant will come out with a handheld device that enables him to gather all the information he needs on you and the car, send it wirelessly to a main database, and bill your credit card, all within a matter of few seconds. Just imagine what might have happened if the Maryland state trooper who had stopped 9/11 hijacker Ziad S. Jarrah for speeding on September 9, 2001, had had access to that type of technology and had discovered that Jarrah was on the CIA’s terrorist watch list.
The 9/11 murderers exploited law enforcement’s inability to harness the information systems that are commonly available today. Fusion centers are central to erasing that deficiency. If properly operated, fusion centers will enable law enforcement to harness information and intelligence to better identify, assess, and manage emerging threats to public safety.
Fusion centers represent the front line in spotting the sort of threats that went undetected on that deadly day six years ago. And they are having a real impact. As reporter Judith Miller wrote in the Summer 2007 issue of City Journal describing the Los Angeles area fusion center:
Homeland Security now has an official stationed full-time at L.A.’s crown jewel of “jointness”: the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, or “Jay-Rick,” which both Bratton and Chertoff hold up as a model for similar fusion centers soon to be operational in more than three dozen U.S. cities...The JRIC’s analysts don’t conduct investigations; instead, they vet tips and leads—nearly 25 new ones per week—to identify the 1 percent that prove serious...[The Commander of the LAPD’s Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau Mike] Downing says the LAPD has arrested some 200 American citizens and foreigners with suspected ties to terrorist groups since September 11. At present, he adds, his division has 54 open intelligence cases, involving at least 250 “persons of interest.” One of the most celebrated examples of the strategy is the 2005 Torrance case, in which the arrest of two men for robbing a gas station in that city eventually unraveled a militant Islamic plot to attack U.S. military facilities, synagogues, and other places where Jews gather in Los Angeles County.
In this report, the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism (CPT) offers twelve recommendations for establishing new—or enhancing existing—fusion centers. We base these recommendations on a review of current literature, an assessment of existing fusion centers, and interviews with federal, state, and local leaders. Since the resources available to state and local governments are constrained, we have attempted to provide recommendations that we deem to be both necessary components of a well-functioning fusion center and resource-neutral.
It is our hope that the recommendations and information shared in this report will assist municipalities in strengthening the operations of their fusion centers. CPT thanks the members of the New Jersey State Police, the leadership and members of the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (ROIC), and the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness for the opportunity to discuss these recommendations and learn from their experiences. We would also like to thank the leadership of the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, who greatly informed this effort.
Tim Connors and John Rollins