Preventing the Next Disaster
From street crime to terrorism to violent weather, the Homeland Security Department’s fusion centers piece together critical intelligence that can save lives.
When Hurricane Sandy took aim at the Garden State in October 2012, Gov. Chris Christie crafted what would become a nationally visible leadership response, executed in part from a specially designed information sharing facility in West Trenton, N.J.
On the ground floor of the six-year-old New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center is the modern, wired up media room where Christie issued statements and answered reporters’ questions, just steps away from an array of emergency operations. The facility is part of the Homeland Security Department’s network of fusion centers.
Within the complex is a meeting room for the governor’s Cabinet, the New Jersey state troopers headquarters and cellphone 9-1-1 call center, along with state and federal intelligence units. Operations revolve around watches and warnings, analysis, information technology, and fusion training.
When a crisis erupts, be it dangerous weather, a violent crime or a terrorist attack, teams from agencies across New Jersey swing into action to augment the 24-7 operation inside the beige brick building outside the capital.
When the superstorm hit near Atlantic City on Oct. 29 and Christie issued a disaster declaration, the fusion center, in collaboration with the state Office of Emergency Management, already had been working off a decisional timeline ticking down to zero.
“It became abundantly clear that responding and recovering from Sandy would require unfettered information sharing similar to the likes of a terrorist event or criminal crisis,” says Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police and one of the few public officials to command police and emergency management functions. “From our fusion center lens, that stands at the core of our mission: information sharing.”
The worst storm in the state’s history left local offices overwhelmed by demands for shelter, power and nourishment. “They were unable to provide a complete description of the operating environment,” Fuentes says. This required the regional center to tap its databases, communications networks and partnerships “to provide the private sector with information on the most current status of fuel, food, hotel and pharmacy locations, and levels
Analysts in the building produced a reporting template for 300 New Jersey state troopers and 290 out-of-state troopers deployed to collect data on storm-related safety and security missions. After reports of looting and burglary came from storm-hit areas, the center compiled its first-ever analysis of such patterns for local police and prosecutors. Every storm-related arrest was scrutinized for trends, leading in one case to identification of a violent fugitive suspected of stealing copper.
In the days that followed, the team coordinated deployment of 500 law enforcement officers to affected areas, providing maps and emailing safety messages. More than 1,500 requests for logistical or personnel support passed through the center’s “partner room.”
Using a network of police chiefs, analysts fanned out online to collect information on the condition of government buildings and infrastructure. They shared it with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.
“Such collaboration and cooperation between multiple government and private sector agencies [provide the] information flows and leadership principles that create a culture that allows and encourages creativity and planning,” says Maj. Christian Schulz, the regional center’s task force commander.
Among the 70-plus fusion centers launched by the Homeland Security Department during the past decade, New Jersey’s is considered a model of sophistication. For the state, the mission of combining anti-crime resources and intelligence is a high priority. New Jerseyans, after all, bore vivid firsthand witness to the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and many live alongside high-crime areas and coastal sites vulnerable to storms.
But New Jersey’s facility isn’t exactly typical. Nationally, the intelligence centers—funded in part through Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative Grant—vary in quality, according to a September 2012 critique by the bipartisan nonprofit Constitution Project, which noted they are staffed by anywhere from three to 250 employees and lack performance metrics. “Fusion centers vary by customer needs; some focus more on emergency management and less on threat awareness,” says New Jersey State Trooper Jeremy Russ.
Weeks before Hurricane Sandy, a report from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that fusion centers, despite receiving between $289 million and $1.4 billion since 2003, have “not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.” The report faulted DHS for poor training and weak tracking of grant expenditures while criticizing the centers for producing intelligence that is out of date, duplicative or uninformative.
“Many of the fusion centers have not made counterterrorism an explicit priority and some have de-emphasized counterterrorism in favor of more traditional public safety and anti-crime work,” the report says. Claims by DHS “did not always fit the facts and in no case did a fusion center make a clear and unique intelligence contribution that helped apprehend a terrorist or disrupt a plot.”
An October study by the conservative Heritage Foundation called for a cutback in fusion centers, arguing that neither Washington nor short-staffed localities can afford them.
That same month, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center was accused of spying on lawful peace rallies and keeping files on participants. The complaint came from the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild and the activist group Veterans for Peace.
While fusion centers are good in some ways, says Michael German, an ACLU senior policy counsel, “if their information sharing intelligence is not timely, is erroneous or violates people’s rights, it’s not helpful and wastes money. Local citizens would rather have more police officers than 55 flat-screen TVs at a fusion center.”
In defense of the centers, a DHS spokesman faulted the Senate report’s research and argued that it misunderstands the role government is playing. The department “supports fusion centers, working in coordination with other federal partners, through training, technical assistance, technology and grant funding, as well as the deployment of DHS intelligence officers who work side-by-side with fusion center personnel to assess threats and share information,” says DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard. “Fusion centers play a key role by receiving classified and unclassified information from the federal government and assessing its local implications. Homeland security begins with hometown security.”
Equally protective is Thomas O’Reilly, former director of the Justice Department’s Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, who works with the Trenton center. “From the purists’ point of view, it’s easy to sit back and say one can’t distinguish this from local crime,” says O’Reilly, now executive director of the Police Institute at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice. “But you can’t compartmentalize homeland security—terrorism is a state crime as well as a federal one. The fact pattern doesn’t always jump out at you.”
ACT AS A REGION
The Trenton ROIC was dedicated in January 2007 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine. But its roots go back to the late 1990s, when then-Gov. Christie Todd Whitman spotted a need for a unified crisis center. An emergency management center had been under construction, but was flooded during Hurricane Floyd.
The need “for the government to look at the whole community” of law enforcement, says Russ, was then driven home by the 9/11 attacks, in which some of the terrorists boarded a flight from Newark for their long-planned operation in which 700 from the state would perish.
“We needed special policing to prevent, not just react, based on community policing improvements,” O’Reilly says. And at a time of tight budgets, the notion of smart use of information from diffuse data sources to create suspicious activity reports that national analysts could mine for valuable intelligence would make fusion centers “the template for the future,” he adds.
The New Jersey building was designed in accordance with the Justice Department’s Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, a system used nationwide to enforce standards in data interoperability and privacy protection. So many agencies wanted to participate that “we ran out of space,” says Russ. The 12,000-square-foot addition built in 2006 helped remove the physical barriers that inhibit information sharing.
The key was “how to act better as a region,” O’Reilly says. In 2001, the state was spending $1 million a week on overtime to combat a security threat that he characterizes as very generic. One of the struggles in integrating crime data from multiple agencies was “overcoming silos,” he says, noting that different agency cultures produce different vocabularies. It was imperative to standardize such basics as how to describe an automobile “in a way that computer software can bridge and connect dots,” O’Reilly adds.
The New Jersey state police and emergency management professionals now coordinate with federal agencies including the FBI, Coast Guard, Federal Air Marshal Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Guard, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “If only more agencies looked for ways to use resources for multiple purposes,” O’Reilly says. “It’s probably one of the top 10 issues we face.”
INSIDE THE CENTER
The layout of New Jersey’s intelligence center, which has 75 full-time employees, allows quick access to and integration of functions. Closest to the parking lot is a state-of-the-art media center. When an emergency unfolds, workspace for 50 reporters is ready, along with power outlets for linking to broadcasters’ satellite trucks.
Just upstairs is the executive conference room. During a disaster, the governor and state emergency superintendent can gather around the long table with the state’s key players. A closed door leads to a sensitive compartmented information facility, a small sealed-off room for processing secret intelligence.
The glass walls of the conference room afford a view of the operations center below. Its 120 desks with phones and computers allow representatives from state agencies to set up shop elbow-to-elbow during a crisis with access to their home agency data. In a separate room, state trooper commanders monitoring closed circuit TVs from around the state take calls concerning incidents ranging from a missing child to a blocked bridge.
On the same floor, but off-limits to visitors, is the intelligence and analysis unit. Its analysts come from 26 partner entities in the local, state, federal, military and private sectors, not just during a crisis but all year. In the past two years its production of reports on everything from carjackings to assaults has risen by 52 percent, benefiting law enforcement, intelligence and private sector offices.
A key provider of raw intelligence in the same complex is the New Jersey Emergency Operations Center, which handles 9-1-1 cellphone traffic. Landline emergency calls are handled by localities. Call data on crime, burglaries and drug abuse, as well as weather and traffic, are tracked to identify trends unlikely to be apparent to individual towns.
An information technology unit provides the digital tools. “We monitor the Garden State network infrastructure in partnership with the private sector,” says task force commander Schulz. “If a website is being shut down, we won’t know if it’s a cybercriminal or a terrorist.”
The big picture “is complex and we’re adapting at all times,” he says. “One of the toughest parts is when law enforcement asks for information from all the data and we have to decide what it means for all concerned. ” But the goal is to help police departments decide how to use resources to target crime, Schulz says.
Of interest to Homeland Security officials, says analysis element unit chief Leonard Nerbetski, are the suspicious activity reports. Observed behavior ranging from odd inquiries to picture-taking near potential crime targets can be entered into the database to gauge the threat. “The great thing about fusion centers,” he says, “is that they’re positioned in exactly the right place to take information at the local level and get it up the federal level.” Conversely, state officials can get national information on the spot.
The analysis unit assembles a daily crime statistics report for distribution to local police chiefs. Taped to the walls and unfurled on a table are huge flow charts linking photos of crime suspects and known information—names, birth dates, past crimes, victim information, weapons possessed—along with ammunition data that can connect crimes from disparate locations on a timeline.
Using databases of violent crimes and ballistics, Nerbetski says, combined with a predictive software that uses 700 layers of factor data, such as socioeconomic makeup of neighborhoods, analysts seek to anticipate crime. Some 90 percent of carjackings, for example, take place near interstate highway ramps. “We provide information on personalities, and the context of an event—the reason for a shooting, whether it’s a gang war, who and why,” says state trooper Russ.
Shared intelligence makes a dramatic difference, according to Nerbetski, in crimes such as theft of valuable scrap metals to be pawned at shops in other jurisdictions. Such thefts from railroad tracks and power stations are “a danger to the thief and to the public,” he says.
The intelligence also aids in tracking patterns of burglaries. “The bad guys don’t care where they commit burglaries in adjoining neighborhoods,” Nerbetski says, but after the ROIC recently pushed out predictive analysis, the Essex County prosecutor assembled officers from 17 municipalities to confront the threat.
Modern digital graphics and printing technology allow rapid distribution of elaborate flow charts to localities, helping officers complete investigations. Intelligence reports also go to the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center.
The crime suspects displayed on the fusion center’s intelligence charts, the officers say, are recidivists whose records are already in the system. The center stresses internal guidelines on First Amendment rights and privacy protections. “The Occupy Wall Street movement was not a criminal entity,” says Schulz. “We would not put out information on them or do a deep dive.”
But as Russ notes, whether investigating attacks by al Qaeda or animal rights activists, the cases have a common pattern—unusual inquiries, testing of secu-rity, acquiring weapons, training and a dry run. That’s where suspicious activity reporting is essential to shareable intelligence, he says. “Only fusion centers are taking SARs evaluation to that level.”
Fusion centers also can head off violence. That was the aim when a 2011 National Socialist Movement protest in Trenton drew counter-demonstrators, and when last summer’s Agudath Israel rally at MetLife stadium in East Rutherford drew 90,000 Jewish congregants. “These events have an impact on traffic and infrastructure,” Russ says. “So we covered them, and the commander did a risk assessment.”
There is at least one terrorism case in which the Homeland Security Department credits the New Jersey center with invaluable help. It involved the 2007 arrest of Eastern European Muslims in New Jersey and Philadelphia for a plot to murder hundreds of soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. The center shared suspicious activity reports with local, state and federal officials that aided the investigation and headed off a possible attack.
At fusion centers nationwide, 25,000 reports of suspicious activity—including 5,000 that came through New Jersey—have resulted in more than 1,200 investigations by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, O’Reilly says.
Such coordination may be helpful, but it’s “the kind of thing that has been going on for hundreds of years,” counters ACLU’s German. “The fact that it’s filed through a fusion center doesn’t mean it was essential to having law enforcement respond appropriately.”
O’Reilly quotes a Jersey City police chief who said, “For just 25 cents’ worth of data we get $2 of actionable information.” Warnings are useful and cost-effective “only if they’re merged or fused with intelligence,” O’Reilly says. “When you protect everything, you protect nothing.”
NEXT STORY: Rite of Passage