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Iowa’s intelligence fusion center ‘connects the dots’
DES MOINES â€” On the third floor of an unnamed building in the shadow of the state Capitol sits the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center, an organization tasked with helping to stop future acts of terrorism.
Made up of law enforcement personnel and state and federal intelligence analysts, the center has six regional offices around the state and nearly 50 staff members.
Law enforcement says it’s an essential tool. Civil liberties advocates worry that creating one-stop shops for sensitive information could lead to abuses. But the fusion center concept is expanding across the country, and in the process, creating a nationwide intelligence network whose activities are barely known to the public.
Traditionally, police had little to do with counterterrorism. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it became obvious that al-Qaeda members had prepared not only in far-off Afghan training camps but also in Minnesota and flight schools in Florida. An unwitting Maryland state trooper actually stopped one of the future hijackers for speeding.
Fusion centers are where the federal, state and local cops share intelligence, sift data for clues, run down reports of suspicious packages, and connect dots in an effort to detect and thwart drug smuggling, gang fighting and other menaces to society.
Russell Porter, director of the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center, said the center has been very successful at its mission since it was first established 3 1/2 years ago.
â€œThere are challenges and concerns, and we are very aware of that,â€ he said. â€œIt works for Iowa because we have worked to give authority to local officials to dictate the fusion centerâ€™s direction.â€
Porter’s career in Iowa law enforcement dates back to 1978, with a focus on intelligence since 1984. In the national intelligence community, Porter is well-known and respected. He was working on his doctoral thesis on intelligence gathering in law enforcement when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened, and along with a number of groups and organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Porter helped craft a plan to fix what went wrong with domestic intelligence gathering while protecting fundamental rights of privacy and civil liberties.
“When 9/11 happened, suddenly there was the political will in Washington and around the country to do something,” he said. “A few of us put together the IACP Criminal Intelligence Sharing Summit in March of 2002. A colleague of mine and I served as the technical writers for that report, which was published in August of 2002. It called for the creation of a national criminal intelligence sharing plan and a criminal intelligence coordinating council.”
That laid the groundwork for “fusion centers,” with an underlying goal of keep Americans safe. Whether or not that has happened is something that is difficult to quantify. Porter, for one, does not see terrorism as the biggest threat facing Iowans.
â€œItâ€™s a clichÃ©, but, yes, Americans are safer, but we are not yet safe,â€ he said. â€œWe need to keep a realistic perspective on the threats that we face. In cities across America, we still have significant gang problems. There are still issues with domestic violence. We still face those community problems. Weâ€™re stronger at how we deal with those things, and I think weâ€™re better informed, but the danger persists.â€
While the initial idea behind creating these centers around the country was to combat terrorism, the mission in Iowa has evolved to the point where its biggest successes deal with home-grown crime.
The Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center was established in December 2004. But unlike a lot of states that are building similar networks across the country, Iowa had a head start. The Fusion Center was built on the skeleton of the Iowa Law Enforcement Intelligence Network (LEIN), a system designed to share information among law enforcement agencies that has been in place since 1984.
â€œWe took something that has been around since 1984 and said letâ€™s invest in it to strengthen it and make it operate more smoothly,â€ Porter said. â€œSo we took each of our six LEIN regions and determined one agency in each region that was willing to step up and served as the grantee for the fusion office. Really, this is just a strengthening of capabilities weâ€™ve had in place for decades. â€
The six regional offices are located in urban areas such as Des Moines, Sioux City and Waterloo, but also in rural outposts like Atlantic and Independence. There are 21 total staffers working in the regional offices around the state, ranging from two staffers in the Region 6 office in Blue Grass to five staffers in the Region 4 office in Atlantic.
The headquarters for the stateâ€™s fusion centers is led by the Iowa Department of Public Safety (IDPS) and located in the departmentâ€™s offices in the State Capitol Complex at 215 E. Seventh St. in Des Moines. There are 23 staff members, including 10 intelligence analysts and 13 law enforcement officers. Among the staff are representatives from the Iowa State Patrol, the State Division of Narcotics Enforcement, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Iowa Fire Marshallâ€™s office and The Midwest High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also supplies two staffers to the fusion center.
Porter expects an analyst from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be assigned to the Iowa Fusion Center soon.
Dennis Rudolph, operations supervisor at the Region 4 Fusion Center, said the major difference between LEIN and the fusion centers is â€œthe difference between reactive and proactive.â€
â€œLEIN was a reactive thing,â€ he said. â€œYou bring people together and they say what problems they were having this month, everyone talks and if a couple match up, they get together and they talk and compare notes. The fusion center is more proactive, using our resources to say this is a problem happening in western Nebraska which seems to be moving east, so you should be aware.â€
Each regional office is somewhat autonomous, Porter said, forming its own governing structure depending on local needs. Each regional supervisor reports to Porter, who reports to Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Eugene Meyer, who reports to Gov. Chet Culver. There is also a LEIN Executive Board, made up of seven members: a law enforcement officer from each region and Porter.
Federal funding cut
Almost 90 percent of the main fusion centerâ€™s funding comes from state appropriation and the IDPSâ€™ budget, Porter said. The agencies that supply staff to the center, like the FBI, cover their salaries, but the rest falls under the domain of the IDPS.
The six regional offices, on the other hand, are funded almost entirely out of federal Department of Homeland Security grants. In fact, one of the biggest determining factors of whether a municipality would be the site of a regional office was its willingness to take on the responsibility of working to attain federal grant money.
â€œAs you can imagine, it can sometimes be very arduous,â€ Porter said.
To make matters more difficult, the federal government has cut the amount of money it puts into the fusion center program in recent years. According to an October 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, Homeland Security grants totaled more than $130 million from 2004 to 2006. But in 2006, the total amount allocated dropped from $57 million to $43 million. Iowa was not immune.
â€œI think next year is going to be tough for us,â€ Rudolph said. â€œI think some thought has gone into turning to local municipalities to try to get some funding, but budgets are tight. I think law enforcement and emergency management are going to lose something very good if the federal government squeezes this program financially.â€
The mission expands
The intelligence scope of the Iowa fusion centers is defined as â€œall crimes,â€ not just counterterrorism.
This all-crimes approach is essential, Porter said, in order to keep Iowans safe and protect the country against terrorism. Rudolph said while you wonâ€™t see cases in Iowa opened because â€œsomeone is a terrorist,â€ you will see someone busted early on before getting the chance to commit a terrorist act. Groups plotting terrorist attacks could first commit crimes such as money laundering, drug dealing or illegal gun sales to finance their operations.
â€œYou have to fund terrorism somehow, and a lot of times it’s through illegal activity,â€ he said. â€œWe start seeing a guy in Iowa selling dope, then all the sudden you see his name come up in a meeting with Nebraska, and heâ€™s selling guns there. You start looking at him a little harder.â€
Porter said the Iowa fusion centers follow the traditional model for the intelligence process. That begins with defining information requirements, or things that are important for people to know about. For example, crimes involving children are required to be reported up the chain of the fusion center. So earlier this year when a man tried to entice a young girl into his car in rural Guthrie County, local law enforcement told the fusion office, which reported it up to the central fusion center. That is when it was determined that another incident had occurred, which warranted a bulletin to be sent out to law enforcement personnel.
â€œI hate using this phrase, but it is our job to connect the dots,â€ Porter said.
In August 2006, the Department of Homeland Security issued â€œFusion Center Guidelines,â€ which, among other things, defined information requirements on a federal level. Now, certain information is automatically shared with surrounding states or the Department of Homeland Security.
When information comes down from Washington, D.C., sometimes there is a disconnect, Porter said.
â€œSometimes, priorities may be different, or lexicon might be different,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s why itâ€™s important to get everyone on the same page.â€
The Iowa fusion centers also played a role in the recent flooding. While their mission does not include â€œall hazards,â€ as some statesâ€™ do, Rudolph said the fusion centers, since they work with many different agencies, can work to help them overcome their interoperability issues.
One of the best aspects of the fusion centers, Rudolph said, is the fact that it has created a working relationship among law enforcement on many levels.
â€œIt is very helpful that we all are starting to know one another and work together regularly,â€ he said. â€œPrior to the fusion centers, no one really knew who to turn to or talk to. Now, we work with the FBI, [the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms], [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and several other agencies at least a couple times a month. That was unheard of before.â€
Porter said in many cases, criminal activity cannot be ruled out right away, so it is the fusion centerâ€™s responsibility to become involved.
â€œIf a chemical plant explodes, it could be criminal, it could be human error, it could be negligence. You canâ€™t rule anything out,â€ he said.
The fusion centersâ€™ job is not investigative, Rudolph said, but rather as a way for all information to be gathered in one location, analyzed and sent to the places it needs to go.
â€œWeâ€™re a clearinghouse for intelligence, not a storage facility. Weâ€™re a middle man,â€ Rudolph said.
The Iowa fusion centers have access to national data bases such as Law Enforcement Online and Regional Information Sharing Systems Intranet. They also have access to Homeland Security Information Network, but only the â€œcontrolled but unclassifiedâ€ version. Porter anticipates that with the addition of a Department of Homeland Security employee to the fusion center staff, the center will gain access to the â€œsecretâ€ version of the network.
â€œWe think the fusion center would benefit from the assignment of a U.S. DHS employee, and access to HSDN-Secret, so that the DHS employee is here and the system is accessible before the onset of a crisis,â€ he said. â€œWe also know that the information environment is constantly changing, so we are always keeping an eye out for information systems that might be developed that will help us serve Iowa and our communities better.â€
A threat to civil liberties?
Civil liberties advocates worry that the growing tentacles of these networks, linking many government agencies and potentially private industry as well, could breach the privacy of law-abiding citizens.
They argue that laws were put into place to avoid these types of networks because history has shown they lead to abuse. They add that the “all crimes” approach sounds suspiciously like the government is building a distributed domestic intelligence service that could easily begin keeping tabs on Americans who are doing nothing more than exercising their First Amendment rights.
â€œWe donâ€™t think we have to give up the privileges that come with being a law-abiding citizen in order to be safe,â€ said Ben Stone, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. â€œThe danger with this sort of thing is that you end up making everyone a suspect, and thatâ€™s not the way you do law enforcement.â€
Earlier this year, the ACLU issued a report entitled “Whatâ€™s Wrong With Fusion Centers,” which cited concerns about military units operating in the centers, as well as the potential for scope creep and data mining. How, the group asked, can citizens contest information about themselves, given the patchwork of state, local and federal sunshine laws that may or may not apply?
Porter not only understands the concerns, he takes them very seriously.
In April, he testified before Congress about the history of the fusion center concept, and the history of the abuse of civil liberties by law enforcement in the name of making the country safer. He pointed to the FBI’s notorious Counter Intelligence Program, known as Cointelpro, during the 1960s and early 1970s, which included a series of covert and often illegal projects aimed at investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations within the United States. When exposed, Cointelpro was greeted with lawsuits, complaints and headlines, and the program was shut down.
â€œIt is critically important that we avoid the historical practices that led to reoccurring violations of privacy rights and civil liberties,â€ Porter said in his testimony.
Since his testimony before Congress, Porter said he has been traveling the country to teach other state fusion centers the history of intelligence gathering abuse, in the hopes that it will remain a priority.
â€œIt has got to be given high visibility and high attention because it is one of the things that causes us to fail in this business,â€ he said. â€œFrom my past study and research, itâ€™s a pivot point to success or failure. Itâ€™s essential to protect the principles on which this country was founded. With the fusion centers, we built on the history, successes and the problems that we had in the past.â€
Standards for centers include a ban on information concerning the political, religious or social views of an individual or group unless the information is directly related to criminal activity. Also, there must be a reasonable suspicion that an individual is involved in a crime before information is collected.
“These have been court tested, civil liberties advocates find them acceptable and so we held those out to make sure that if youâ€™re going to do this business, you need to adhere to those regulatory frameworks,” Porter said.
â€œThere is so little that is publicly known about the fusion centers,” the ACLUâ€™s Stone said. “I think that is why some people are worried. History has shown that when people get unfettered power, it will be abused. So I believe there should be an inherent skepticism with this.â€
An uncertain future
Iowans can rest assured that law enforcement is doing everything it can to keep them safe, Porter said. But there are storm clouds on the horizon for the fusion center program in Iowa and nationally.
A decrease in federal funding could mean a loss of training for many employees, Porter says, which could lead to the types of abuses civil liberties activists fear.
â€œWhat you run the risk of is people doing this work without the proper training, and then we have the problems we have had in the past,â€ he said. â€œI think fusion centers are a good way to spend money, because they can help in so many areas, like anti-drug, anti-gang and anti-terrorism. I think weâ€™re on the right path. I just hope we donâ€™t take a step backward.â€
Rudolph said losing funding could be a major blow to law enforcement in Iowa.
â€œWhat can be accomplished is really incredible,â€ he said. â€œIn the past, you might have two deputies and a sheriff trying to work a burglary ring that involves multi-counties and multi-states. Now, you have 60 officers from all these counties and states going after it. It’s a huge difference.â€
So if the program is making people safer, why is it suddenly having problems getting the federal government to pay for it?
“I think the further away we get from 9/11, the more we start to lose some of the urgency of this type of thing,” Porter said. “I think that’s part of it. But even more than that, I think it becomes one of many priorities for the government to spend money on. Lots of really good programs end up falling through the cracks. The hope on the ground is that this doesn’t become a victim of that sort of thing.”