Local police intelligence fusion centers created after Sept. 11 to foil terrorism plots are now being used for the most common law enforcement responsibilities despite an enormous investment from the Department of Homeland Security.

A fusion center in Iowa helped police this month nab a dollar-store thief who made off with $250 during a “bold daytime burglary,” one local paper described it. The Dollar General Store in Vinton, Iowa, is a retailer of low-cost groceries, as its name suggests.

Authorities in Arizona announced recently that a fusion center there would be involved in a summer campaign against youth crime starting with shoplifting and loud house parties, which police say can lead to drug activity and homicides.

Since a genuine threat of terrorism is uncommon for so many areas of the United States, fusion centers over time have broadened their missions to include “all crimes” and “all hazards,” partly to convince skeptical police departments to participate and so they could seek a wider array of resources like federal grants to keep them afloat.

Poor information sharing between local, state and federal agencies emerged as a chief factor contributing to the deadly success of 9/11. Since then, countless reports, commissions and initiatives from the government have offered various solutions to the problem of authorities failing to utilize intelligence that could halt terrorism attempts.

There are now several dozen fusion centers in the United States, and Washington has committed more than a quarter-of-a-billion dollars to their construction, mostly through the use of homeland security grants. Local law enforcement officials still complain that’s not enough and have pressured lawmakers to find more money for hiring intelligence analysts and covering other costs.

Meanwhile, the centers today often appear to be fighting everyday crime over al-Qaeda.

In the case of Iowa, terrorists would need to rob Dollar General locations 1,600 times at $250 a hit in order to raise enough money for another Sept. 11-style assault, if it happened that the incidents were connected to terrorism. The 9/11 Commission conservatively says al-Qaeda raised about $400,000 for the attacks.

As for Arizona, the state’s new anti-immigration law may turn out be a bigger hurdle for law enforcement during its seasonal crackdown on lawless young people rather than any perceived shortcoming in intelligence collection and sharing. The police chief in Mesa, Ariz., earlier this month sought to emphasize that undocumented immigrants should not fear deportation as a result of providing tips to officials that could aid the operation.

“The community does not need to be afraid of this police department,” the Arizona Republic quoted him as saying June 4. “We don’t need to know who you are. There is no need for identification. There will be no third degree.”

There are other examples of fusion centers performing standard police duties. When a 52-year-old woman in Bentonville, Ark., turned up missing earlier this year after a domestic dispute, police forwarded details about the case to that state’s fusion center, created in 2008. In Nacogdoches, Texas, the sheriff’s department hopes a fusion center will help solve the abduction and sexual assault of a woman seized last month in her home by an unknown masked assailant.

A Michigan fusion center may have at one time been in a position to help stop the Christmas Day underwear bomber, but according to the Detroit News, it wasn’t enlisted in the case until after airline passengers had already restrained the suspect. Texas Republican Congressman Michael McCaul mentioned Houston’s fusion center in a June 9 statement reacting to news that authorities had charged a man from the Lone Star State with seeking to help al-Qaeda. But it’s not clear what role if any the center played in that arrest.

One of the most enlightening commentaries yet on the phenomenon of fusion centers came from a 25-year-veteran of the New Jersey State Police. Stephen Serrao wrote in a leading industry publication last year that many fusion centers still have widely scattered missions that aren’t clearly defined. Lower-level personnel end up determining priorities for them since top law enforcement commanders don’t always bother becoming directly involved with the centers.

He cited one example where police officers contact a center for simple driver’s license information because it’s faster than calling the DMV. Another center purchased sophisticated intelligence management software, but without knowing what tools were actually needed, it deployed clerks and administrative assistants to use the program, not professional analysts. Center managers elsewhere constructed their facilities with thick walls, intricate combination locks and additional security features so they would be permitted to handle classified documents and data. But according to Serrao, some centers won’t ever have to deal with top-secret information. Furthermore:

Many of the staff assigned to work [in the centers] don’t have top-secret clearances, so they are literally sitting in the hall outside the facility without access to many information systems. Most centers are dealing with top-secret data less than five percent of the time. We are overbuilding and over-securing these centers at significant cost, and it is causing great inefficiency. Entering a door at some fusion centers can take up to five minutes because of the complex locking mechanisms on the door to meet the top-secret standard; yet, when you get inside, there is no top-secret information being handled at that facility. The data are usually unclassified and in some cases are open source. Over-securing the facility hampers access, thereby hindering investigations.

The federal government has published two critical reports now on fusion centers, and both point to missions that were poorly defined at conception, or the centers swiftly expanded their scope of operations arguing that any number of crimes could turn out to have a link with terrorism. One center examined had to focus on all crimes so multiple agencies would be willing to contribute resources, while a second said having a larger purpose made it easier to apply for different types of funding, according to assessments from the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service, issued in 2007 and 2008 respectively. From CRS:

Leadership at several fusion centers interviewed for this report noted they believed the country was moving towards an all-crimes and/or all-hazards model and they felt they needed to move with the changing tide. Others suggested it was impossible to create ‘buy-in’ amongst local law enforcement agencies and other public sectors if a fusion center was solely focused on counterterrorism, as the center’s partners often didn’t feel threatened by terrorism, nor did they think their community would produce would-be terrorists. Rather, most police departments and public-sector agencies are more concerned with issues such as gangs, narcotics and street crime, which are more relevant to their communities.

While the growth of fusion centers occurred suddenly amid the war on terror, the concept of intelligence fusion and sharing isn’t new. A fusion center in El Paso, Texas, created by the Drug Enforcement Administration during the 1970s should be setting the best example nationally for how to effectively compile and distribute intelligence. But nearly four decades later the center is still struggling to prove it can contribute meaningfully to the fight against narcotics trafficking and illegal immigration.

This month a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that the ability of the El Paso Intelligence Center – EPIC as it’s known – to coordinate with federal and state agencies “is inconsistent.” (One Washington Post commenter called it an “EPIC fail.”) The center doesn’t analyze information from unique sources it has access to and as a result “may be overlooking drug trafficking trends and patterns that could assist interdiction investigations and operations.” EPIC’s information on border threats, moreover, isn’t always current, and it could be doing the same work of other agencies leading to wasted energy:

For EPIC to efficiently disseminate its information, it should have contacts in each key intelligence center throughout the country and ensure that those contacts are aware of EPIC’s products and services and how to access them. … When we compared EPIC with other multi-agency centers having counterdrug intelligence responsibilities, we found increasing potential for overlap in certain areas. … With the emergence of new centers and EPIC’s expansion into program areas that were not addressed [in earlier planning], there is an increased likelihood for duplication of effort among the centers.

Flickr images by davidsonscott15 and Steve Snodgrass. Thanks to Steven Aftergood and Secrecy News for making Congressional Research Service reports available to the public.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.