Five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks called into question the nation's intelligence system, state homeland security officials say the federal government still is failing to collect and analyze terror-threat information gathered by state and local authorities.
State homeland security officials in charge of new intelligence " fusion centers " told Congress last week the federal government needs to come up with a way to connect federal, state and local information-gathering sources or risk missing clues that could help prevent another terrorist attack.
They also criticized the federal government for significant delays in issuing top-secret clearance to state officials and for withholding too much information on the grounds that it is classified.
"It truly dismays me to think that five years after the September 11th attacks we are still not where we should be regarding the exchange of the information needed to prevent and respond to attacks and possible threats against our communities," Illinois State Police Col. Kenneth Bouche said in a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., Sept. 7.
Forty-one states have established or plan to open fusion centers, which provide statewide information-sharing between state, local and federal public-safety agencies and the private sector to coordinate intelligence against terrorism and other threats. The nine states without fusion centers are: Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
The secretive new centers have civil liberties advocates alarmed because of the lack of government accountability in protecting privacy and civil rights. But government officials see them as a vital new tool for domestic security.
Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons (R), chairman of the House subcommittee on intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment , which held the hearing, called state fusion centers the most "innovative" domestic development in the war on terror.
"The success of state fusion centers will be the benchmark that we measure our success at securing the homeland," Simmons said.
Bouche, who is deputy director of the Illinois State Police Information and Technology Command said the biggest problem states have accessing classified government data is that different federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), do not recognize each other's security clearances, and require lengthy background checks before granting top-secret clearance to state officials. He said that state police should be able to conduct their own background checks to issue security clearances.
Some states have taken it upon themselves to join fusion centers in regional networks to share threat information, including some Rocky Mountain and West Coast states and some in New England. But state officials pointed to the lack of a national center for pooling and analyzing local and state information about security threats.
New Jersey Homeland Security and Preparedness director Richard L. Cañas, who has 34 years of law enforcement, intelligence and counter-terrorism experience, said his state does not have the time or resources to regionalize their information-gathering efforts. He said only the federal government can provide the missing link needed to identify national trends and patterns in threat intelligence.
"I don't see an effort by anyone at the federal level to standardize state efforts by building a national fusion center that takes my information and looks for links with other similar events across the country," said Cañas.
Charles E. Allen, DHS assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis, told the hearing that linking state and local fusion centers with the national effort is a top priority for DHS. He said plans are under way to embed DHS intelligence operatives in all major state fusion centers by the end of 2008.
DHS already has embedded officers in fusion centers in New York, Los Angeles, Louisiana, Georgia and Maryland. The officers will soon set up links to the department's top-secret communications network, Homeland Security Data Network. Eventually, state personnel will be given access to the network, Allen said.
Maryland developed one of the first fusion centers in 2003 when it brought together representatives from more than a dozen state and federal agencies under one roof in the new state Coordination and Analysis Center . In December 2004, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) issued recommendations from a DHS advisory counsel he chaired that called for making fusion centers a central part of the nation's homeland security efforts.
States have since spent millions of dollars in state and federal funds to establish fusion centers. But civil liberties advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say that states have not done enough to establish oversight and accountability measures to govern the new centers.
The ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act request in Massachusetts seeking to access policies and regulations for the state's new fusion center that state officials said are still being developed, said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.
"When you take someone's personal information about every aspect of their life, and you put it together in one database that has no oversight, the dangers of identity theft or abuse of power by whoever has access to the data are really high," Rose said.