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A fusion center is an information sharing center, many of which were jointly created between 2003 and 2007 under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice.
They are designed to promote information sharing at the federal level between agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. military, and state- and local-level government. As of July 2009[update], the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recognized at least 72 fusion centers. Fusion centers may also be affiliated with an Emergency Operations Center that responds in the event of a disaster.
The fusion process is an overarching method of managing the flow of information and intelligence across levels and sectors of government to integrate information for analysis. That is, the process relies on the active involvement of state, local, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies—and sometimes on non-law enforcement agencies (e.g., private sector)—to provide the input of raw information for intelligence analysis. As the array of diverse information sources increases, there will be more accurate and robust analysis that can be disseminated as intelligence.
A two-year senate investigation found that "the fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever." The report also said that in some cases the fusion centers violated civil liberties or privacy.
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Although the phrase has been widely used, there are often misconceptions about the function of fusion centers. Perhaps the most common is that the center is a large room full of work stations where the staff are constantly responding to inquiries from officers, investigators, and agents. This vision is more accurately a watch center or an investigative support center—not an intelligence fusion center.
Another common misconception is that the fusion center is minimally staffed until there is some type of crisis whereupon representatives from different public safety agencies converge in staff workstations to manage the crisis. This staffing model more accurately describes an emergency operations center, not an intelligence fusion center. The fusion center is not an operational center but a support center driven by analysis.
The fusion process proactively seeks to identify perceived threats and stop them before they occur. A fusion center is typically organized by amalgamating representatives from different federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies into one physical location. However, some fusion centers gather information not only from government sources, but also from their partners in the private sector. Each representative is intended to be a conduit of raw information from his or her agency, a representative who can infuse that agency-specific information into the collective body of information for analysis. Conversely, when the fusion center needs intelligence requirements the representative is the conduit back to the agency to communicate, monitor, and process the new information needs. Similarly, the agency representative ensures that analytic products and threat information are directed back to one’s home agency for proper dissemination. According to the fusion center guidelines, a fusion center is defined as “a collaborative effort of two or more agencies that provide resources, expertise, and/or information to the center with the goal of maximizing the ability to detect, prevent, apprehend, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity. The intelligence component of a fusion center focuses on the intelligence process, where information is collected, integrated, evaluated, analyzed, and disseminated. Nontraditional collectors of intelligence, such as public safety entities and private sector organizations, possess important information that can be fused' with law enforcement data to provide meaningful information and intelligence about threats and criminal activity.”
State and local police departments provide both space and resources for the majority of fusion centers. The analysts working there can be drawn from DHS, local police, or the private sector. A number of fusion centers operate tip hotlines and also invite relevant information from public employees, such as sanitation workers or firefighters.
There are a number of documented criticisms of fusion centers, including relative ineffectiveness at counterterrorism activities, the potential to be used for secondary purposes unrelated to counterterrorism, and their links to violations of civil liberties of American citizens and others. One such fusion center has been involved with spying on anti-war and peace activists as well as anarchists in Washington State.
David Rittgers of the Cato Institute has noted
a long line of fusion center and DHS reports labeling broad swaths of the public as a threat to national security. The North Texas Fusion System labeled Muslim lobbyists as a potential threat; a DHS analyst in Wisconsin thought both pro- and anti-abortion activists were worrisome; a Pennsylvania homeland security contractor watched environmental activists, Tea Party groups, and a Second Amendment rally; the Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a fusion center in Missouri thought that all third-party voters and Ron Paul supporters were a threat; and the Department of Homeland Security described half of the American political spectrum as "right wing extremists." 
A 2007 ACLU report raised concerns with four areas of fusion center aspects, the first of which was that they suffered from "ambiguous lines of authority", meaning that the fusion process "allows the authorities to manipulate differences in federal, state and local laws to maximize information collection while evading accountability and oversight through the practice of 'policy shopping'." The ACLU was also concerned with the private sector and military participation in the surveillance of US citizens through these fusion centers. Finally, the ACLU report argued that fusion centers were likely to engage in poorly contained data mining because the "Federal fusion center guidelines encourage wholesale data collection and manipulation processes that threaten privacy" and that the centers were "hobbled by excessive secrecy". An updated ACLU report in 2008 argued that the fusion centers were creating a "total surveillance society" in the US. An ACLU spokesperson compared the fusion centers initiative with Operation TIPS because of the involvement of private Terrorism Liaison Officers.
Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC) made news in 2009 for targeting supporters of third party candidates, Ron Paul supporters, pro-life activists, and conspiracy theorists as potential militia members. Anti-war activists and Islamic lobby groups were targeted in Texas, drawing criticism from the ACLU.
[T]he Privacy Office has identified a number of risks to privacy presented by the fusion center program:
Despite reviewing 13 months' worth of reporting originating from fusion centers from April 1, 2009 to April 30, 2010, the Subcommittee investigation could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.
An example of useless intelligence highlighted by the committee was a report on a foreigner with an expired visa who had been caught speeding and shoplifting; his name was promptly added to the list of “known or appropriately suspected” terrorists. A reviewer of that report intimated: “I am actually stunned this report got as far as it did,” because “the entire total knowledge about the subject” was that he “tried to steal a pair of shoes from Neiman Marcus” with everything else in the report being commentary. The reviewer concluded: “I have no idea what value this would be adding to the IC [Intelligence Community].”
Another example highlighted in the Senate report was entitled “Possible Drug Smuggling Activity”. It detailed how two state wildlife officials saw two fishermen in a bass boat “operating suspiciously” in waters off the US–Mexico border. The fusion center report listed as suspicions activities the fact that the two suspects “avoided eye contact” and that their boat was low in the water, “as if it were laden with cargo”. The DHS reviewer wrote that: “The fact that some guys were hanging out in a boat where people normally do not fish MIGHT be an indicator of something abnormal, but does not reach the threshold of something we should be reporting,” and “that this should never have been nominated for production, nor passed through three reviews.”
Yet another example was a California fusion center report on the Mongols Motorcycle Club's distribution of leaflets to its members instructing them how to behave when stopped by police. According to the Senate report, the leaflet suggested to the Club members that they should be courteous, control their emotions and, if drinking, have a designated driver. One supervisor eventually killed the fusion center report, noting that “There is nothing illegal or even remotely objectionable [described] in this report,” and that “The advice given to the groups’ members is protected by the First Amendment.”
Part of the problems identified by the Senate report is that the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis imposed a quota of reports to be filed by the fusion centers, leading to diminished quality. The Senate committee estimated that about $1.4 billion had been spent on the fusion centers. It also estimated that:
Of the 386 unclassified HIRs that DHS eventually published over the 13-month period reviewed by the Subcommittee investigation, a review found close to 300 of them had no discernable connection to terrorists, terrorist plots or threats.
Matthew Chandler, a spokesperson for the DHS, immediately denounced the Senate report in an interview with Fox News, in which he said that "In preparing the report, the committee refused to review relevant data, including important intelligence information pertinent to their findings," and that the "report fundamentally misunderstands the role of the federal government in supporting fusion centers and overlooks the significant benefits of this relationship to both state and local law enforcement and the federal government."
Interviewed about the Senate report, Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, stated that: "Since 9/11, the growth of state and local fusion centers has been exponential and regrettably in many instances it has produced an ill-planned mishmash rather than a true national system that is well-integrated with existing organizations like the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces."
In early April 2009, the Virginia Fusion Center came under criticism for publishing a terrorism threat assessment which stated that certain universities are potential hubs for terror related activity. The report targeted historically black colleges and identified hacktivism as a form of terrorism.
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A November 2011 report by the Illinois fusion center was criticized for alleging that Russia hacked and deliberately disabled a water pump of the municipal water system in Illinois. The Senate report writes: "Apparently aware of how important such an event could have been had it been real, DHS intelligence officials included the false allegations—stated as fact—in a daily intelligence briefing that went to Congress and the intelligence community." A subsequent FBI investigation found however that: "The only fact that they got right was that a water pump in a small Illinois water district had burned out."
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