Monday, August 06, 2007

Fusion Centers as Funnels?

Here's an update to this post from a few weeks ago, which reviewed the recent CRS report on fusion centers.

In a recent article, Federal Computer Week also reviewed CRS report and provided a response from the intelligence community:

"The ISE is pushing to use the fusion centers as a node of communication between federal and state and local governments," said [Thomas McNamara, program manager of the Information Sharing Environment at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence]. "It is hard to talk to everyone, so if Washington can talk to 50 states, who then communicate it down to the local level, that is much better."

McNamara also said fusion centers should integrate and filter information from the local level to pass to the federal level.

ISE soon will launch a new system that the organization will use to create and manage the flow of suspicious activity reports that come from fusion centers.

"This is an example of one business process we need to change," McNamara said. "We have to figure out how to make reports from 17,000 to 20,000 police departments usable."
Short version: The information-sharing network is funnel-shaped. The fusion centers are pass-throughs in an essentially hierarchical system. (Note that McNamara says information flows "down" to the local level.)

I appreciate the difficulty of creating a viable information-sharing system to counter the terrorist threat, especially when some of the information is classified. But a hierarchical, bureaucratic system seems outmoded in an era of flat, multi-nodal information sharing systems. It also seems to imply that the function of the fusion center is, primarily, to distill the information from federal sources and distribute it to local officials. (The secondary duty is, of course, to distill information from local authorities and deliver it to federal agencies.)

Therein lies the analytic function of the fusion center - determining what to pass on to whichever audience. Of course, fusion centers must be able to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Given CRS's finding that "the development of a process for gathering information according to clearly defined information requirements in fusion centers remains nascent," and given the fact that fusion centers aren't getting a full range of information from either local or federal agencies, their analytic function is certainly less than optimal - especially if they are operating in "reactive" mode as CRS indicates.

A proactive stance is called for. Fusion centers should be in the business of asking questions and seeking answers (preferably with a full range of data sources available to them). They should not be in the business of searching for patterns in a whirlwind of data, received from an incomplete set of sources.

No comments: