t’s one of the most powerful addictions formed by government since the Sept. 11 hijackings. Blooming in every corner of the country are high-tech command facilities for fighting terrorism, battling crime linked to national security, coordinating disaster responses, enhancing infrastructure protection and more. The desire for them is insatiable, and Congress seems ever the enabler.
Some existed prior to the attacks and received an injection of cash when new, massive spending on homeland security by Washington exploded. Others were created following 9/11 to address every hazard imaginable.
Many of these coordination and intelligence centers are not unlike how action-film directors portray them. There are banks of monitors with analysts working behind three or four panels each, large screens on the wall tuned to cable news networks or weather feeds, lights bleeping from server racks and, of course, lots of maps. Always lots of maps. The only thing missing is a chain-smoking character actor determinedly leading the response to total pandemonium as it rages outside.
Keeping track of the centers turns out to be extraordinarily difficult. It’s never clear where one overlaps with or replaces another. There’s the National Response Coordination Center, the National Operations Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Transportation Security Operations Center (aka the “Freedom Center”), the Transportation Security Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, the Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center, the National Maritime Intelligence Center, the National Vessel Movement Center, the National Hazardous Materials Fusion Center, the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, the Bulk Cash Smuggling Center, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, the International Organized Crime Intelligence and Operations Center and the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center. That’s a partial list.
The Department of Homeland Security also spent more than $250 million over a three-year period helping to build 70 local police fusion centers where authorities trade information about terrorists, natural disasters, threats to public health and everyday crime (it used to be just terrorists, but the expense proved difficult to justify).
Last year’s homeland security appropriations bill contained over 80 earmarks totaling almost $52 million for so-called emergency operations centers located in dozens of communities across the country, from the city of Green Cove Springs in Florida to the city of White Fish in Montana (estimated combined population – about 15,000). Officials say EOCs are necessary for coordinating disaster response and recovery.
Then there’s the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, not to be confused with the National Biosurveillance Integration Center. The first determines what dangers we face if biological agents fall into the hands of terrorists.
The second center’s annual budget is about $8 million. Officials who work on preparedness issues elsewhere in government told congressional investigators last year they weren’t sure if it “contributed anything to the federal biosurveillance community that other agencies were not already accomplishing,” according to a December 2009 report.
Passage of a law in 2007 that implemented leftover recommendations from the 9/11 Commission led to the establishment of the biosurveillance integration center. Its job is to analyze biothreat data flowing in from “partner” agencies and to send out an alert if disturbing trends or events are detected. At least that’s its job on paper.
The center’s “partners,” interviewed by the Government Accountability Office, expressed “widespread uncertainty and skepticism” about its purpose and responsibilities. Its partners include the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Others complained that during the response to H1N1, the center “was not able to demonstrate that it had unique value to add.” Some said they’d rather deal with another of the many centers available, namely the Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center.
There were even worries that the biosurveillance center would fail to accurately interpret data and end up mass distributing ill-informed reports. Interviewees said they were concerned “that [the center’s] lack of contextual sophistication could lead to confusion, a greater volume of unnecessary communication in the biosurveillance environment, or even panic.” In other words, an overabundance of centers could lead to the very shockwaves from non-existent impending doom that we fear.
To be certain, the risks involved shouldn’t be dismissed as science fiction. Experts say the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K. during 2001 led to billions of dollars in losses suffered by the food and agricultural industries. If perpetrators actually figured out a way to spread deadly biological agents over, say, a large vacation resort, it would cause unbelievable tragedy and no doubt send tremors through the economy. The Obama administration is training postal workers to distribute treatments if something like anthrax is loosed into the air.
But the GAO learned that federal agencies responsible for transmitting essential data to the biosurveillance center aren’t doing so with enthusiasm, leaving it to rely in part on publicly available information, which includes news stories. The center’s “partners” also weren’t detailing personnel there with enough expertise to make it effective in rapidly detecting biological threats.
The National Biosurveillance Integration Center isn’t alone in its troubles.
Federal drug enforcement officials created the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) all the way back in the 1970s to collect, analyze and share information about narcotics traffickers and border violence. More than 20 agencies have representatives there. Yet requests for information from its own federal partners, some of them critical, have declined substantially in recent years, the Justice Department’s watchdog inspector general concluded in a June report.
Its ability to coordinate with state and federal bureaucracies “is inconsistent,” the report said. And the center did not keep an up-to-date list of all the other intelligence and fusion centers it should have ties with, nor did EPIC know if it had users in each of those facilities. The following quote, however, seems to say the most about the rise of such centers:
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.
If only the federal government would create a command center for processing Freedom of Information Act requests. At least then there would be a single institution to hold accountable.
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