The National Network of Fusion Centers: Perception and Reality

– Executive Summary –

State and major urban area fusion centers became one of the many organizational innovations to the United States’ national security arsenal after the attacks on 9/11. These entities were designed to aid the nation in combating terrorism through analysis, operations, and information sharing. Many of these fusion centers have evolved over time to support broader public safety efforts in the response and recovery mission of man-made and natural threats. Fusion centers, collectively referred to as the National Network of Fusion Centers or simply the Network, have matured over the last decade, their operations have not escaped the national discourse on domestic intelligence activities. Assessments, studies, and opinions concerning the Network’s functions, capabilities, responsibilities, and overall value, have resulted in positive and negative reviews, which create perceptions about the organization. This thesis aimed to identify and determine which of these perceptions were accurate and to what degree others were erroneous. The following research also attempted to identify and analyze the uneven views of the Network in order to highlight areas where the Network should consider focusing its collective efforts to increase external support and expedite the organization’s maturation process.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) describes a fusion center as “primary focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information among federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) partners.” [1]  From a state and local government perspective, fusion centers are viewed as key assets serving as a force multiplier for all levels of government in the threat arena. These centers are seen by the federal government to be important partners that help the nation achieve long-term security by enabling the government to execute the National Security Strategy. [2]

The fusion center network consists of 78 federally recognized fusion centers that are located in a majority of the states and United States territories. [3]  These centers are owned and operated by state, local, and territorial organizations. Many centers receive federal support in the form of funding, training, federal personnel, technical assistance, exercise support, technology, and other resources to enhance the organization’s capabilities. The organizational structure and staffing at each center is unique due to the differing priorities that are influenced by the threat environment of that center’s area of responsibility. Some of the centers have a significant number of personnel assigned to them and others are smaller task forces.

The National Strategy for Information Sharing highlighted fusion centers as integral players in support of homeland security and combating terrorism. [4]  From this point forward, fusion centers were seen by the federal government as the primary touch points at state and local level for receipt, dissemination, and harvesting of threat and intelligence information. The Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global) in collaboration with DHS and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) developed the Baseline Capabilities for State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers in order to establish common operating principles which all centers could build their capabilities to. [5]

In 2010, the baseline capabilities were distilled into four critical operating capabilities (COC) and four enabling capabilities (EC) intended to highlight the most crucial elements that a center needed to achieve in order to support the Network. [6]  The COCs were identified as the fusion center’s ability to receive information from federal partners, to analyze threat information, to disseminate information to stakeholders, and to gather threat information from partners in their area of operations. [7]  The EC were defined as privacy, civil rights, and civil liberty (P/CRCL) protections, sustainment strategy, communications and outreach, and security. [8]

One of the strengths of the Network  is its direct connections with a variety of entities from all levels of government and the private sector. These connections are often in the form of personnel being assigned or detailed to the center from their parent organization. The detailed individuals provide the centers with expertise from an array of disciplines that enables the centers to gain that discipline’s perspectives. Fusion centers also benefit from the assignee’s organizational contacts and partnerships by in effect, assuming those organizational relationships. These relationships and connections enable the fusion center network to execute its mission of sharing and gathering information.

Criticisms about the Network’s value, performance, and ability to conduct its fundamental missions have been fed by perceptions often based on erroneous or dated information no longer relevant to the argument. The items which research revealed have been the most commonly identified as areas of concern related to Network are administration, analysis, information sharing, organizational mission, as well as P/CRCL.

Administration consists of fusion center oversight and governance bodies, organizational management structure, fusion center composition, as well as the Network’s operating authorities and statutes. In some cases, the fusion centers have been viewed as a lawless body that lacks central oversight from opponents and potentially does not understand that each of the centers reside in different legal jurisdictions. [9]  Other claims have been made that leadership has willingly used these blurry lines of authority in order to apply only parts of the law that conform to the organization’s intent. [10]

Analysis concerns the ability of fusion centers to vet incoming tips and leads, process this raw data, and apply recently received data with other relevant information in order to make a tactical or strategic assessment of the information concerned. Analytical products generated by the Network have often been cited as being of little value or focusing on non-priority items. [11]

The information sharing category contains elements that deal the capacity of the Network to provide information, intelligence, to partner organizations. This also includes the dissemination of requests for information (RFI) and general awareness items where the fusion center may be requesting information from partners. Common concerns raised in this area were cited as product timeliness, redundancy, and at times, lack of delivery to some jurisdictions. [12]

Mission is comprised of the overall focus of the fusion center, the priority information requirements of the entity, as well as how the fusion center views its key contributions to the national security effort. Arguments that have been voiced about the Network in this category have centered on concerns about the migration from counterterrorism focus to all-crimes and all-hazards approaches. [13]

The P/CRCL category consists of the Network’s transparency and the general view of the fusion centers level of commitment to support constitutionally mandated and implied right and liberties. Many of the fears and concerns raised about the Network in this category have often consisted of collection of information concerning lawful citizen activity, and ambiguous reasonable suspicion definitions.

This study determined that some elements of the above-mentioned category were based on items that have been identified by the Network. In some cases, the Network had implemented mitigation strategies and policies (as in the case of P/CRCL) or had altered operations in attempts to correct or improve operations. In other areas, criticisms were based on items beyond the control of the Network, such as the differing legal jurisdictions between state and local boundaries. (Table 1 provides an overview of perceptions of the Network).


[1] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Fusion Center Fact Sheet Page,” accessed May 15, 2014, http://www.dhs.gov/national-network-fusion-centers-fact-sheet

[2] Office of the President of the United States, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: White House, 2010), http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf

[3] “Fusion Center Locations and Contact Information,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accessed June 29, 2014, http://www.dhs.gov/fusion-center-locations-and-contact-information.

[4] Office of the President of the United States, National Strategy for Information Sharing: Successes and Challenges In Improving Terrorism-Related Information Sharing (Washington, DC: White House, 2007), 3  http://nsi.ncirc.gov/documents/National_Strategy_for_Information_Sharing.pdf

[5] Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Baseline Capabilities for State and Major Urban Area Fusion Centers: A Supplement to the Fusion Center Guidelines (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2008), https://it.ojp.gov/gist/Files/baseline%20capabilities%20for%20state%20and%20major%20urban%20area%20fusion%20centers0.pdf

[6] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Fusion Center Fact Sheet Page.”

[7] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Annual Fusion Center Assessment and Gap Mitigation Activities,” accessed March 31, 2014, http://www.dhs.gov/annual-fusion-center-assessment-and-gap-mitigation-activities

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mike German and Jay Stanley, What’s Wrong with Fusion Centers? (New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 2007), https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/privacy/fusioncenter_20071212.pdf, 9–10.

[10] Ibid., 10.

[11] Brian Michael Jenkins, Andrew Liepman, and Henry H. Willis, Identifying Enemies among Us (Washington, DC: Rand Corporation, 2014), http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF300/CF317/RAND_CF317.pdf, 8–9, 12.

[12] U.S. Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers, Majority and Minority Staff Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Senate, 2012), http://cdn.govexec.com/media/gbc/docs/pdfs_edit/100312cc1.pdf, 3; Jenkins, Liepman, and Willis, Identifying Enemies among Us, 9; Jerome P. Bjelopera, Terrorism Information Sharing and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Report Initiative: Background and Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2011), http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/166837.pdf, 16.

[13] Robert W. Taylor and Amanda L. Russell, “The Failure of Police Fusion Centers and the Concept of a National Intelligence Sharing Plan,” Police Practice and Research: An International Journal 13, no. 2 (2012): 186, doi: 10.1080/15614263.2011.581448

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