Of the 43 "fusion centers" already established, only two focus exclusively on preventing terrorism, the Government Accountability Office found in a national survey obtained by The Associated Press. Center directors complain they were hampered by lack of guidance from Washington and were flooded by often redundant information from multiple computer systems.
Administration officials defended the centers and said encompassing all sorts of crimes in the intelligence dragnet is the best way to catch terrorists.
The original idea was to coordinate resources, expertise and information of intelligence agencies so the country could detect and prevent terrorist acts. The concept has been widely embraced, particularly by the Sept. 11 commission, and the federal government has provided $130 million to help get them off the ground. But until recently, there were no guidelines for setting up the centers and as a result, the information shared and how it is used vary.
Centers in Kansas and Rhode Island are the only two focused solely on counterterrorism. Other centers concentrate on all crimes, including drugs and gangs, according to Congress' investigative and auditing arm. Washington state's center, for instance, has an all-hazards mission so it can focus on natural disasters and public health epidemics in addition to terrorism.
"States are at different levels because there wasn't the preconceived game-plan on how to do this," said George Foresman, a former undersecretary at the Homeland Security Department who oversaw the awarding of startup money for many of the centers.
The GAO findings backed up results from a congressional report this year.
"Although many of the centers initially had purely counterterrorism goals, for numerous reasons they have increasingly gravitated toward an all-crimes and even broader all-hazards approach," according to a Congressional Research Service report from June.
To Jack Tomarchio, a senior intelligence official at the Homeland Security Department, that is not a bad thing. "In many cases, there's also a nexus between criminality and terrorism," Tomarchio said. "Terrorists, like anybody else, need money to do their deeds." Often, he said, that means terrorists will be involved in narcotics trafficking and similar crimes.
Most centers are run by state police or other law enforcement agencies. Many also have representatives from a range of other agencies, including fire and public works departments and state gambling regulators. This has raised concerns about privacy as those agencies become linked to a broader intelligence-sharing network. Most of the centers also include federal officials such as analysts from the FBI and Homeland Security.
Some centers are even housed with federal agencies, which can be a benefit. Minnesota's center is in the same building as the FBI, which makes it easier for local officials to access the FBI's networks.
The centers potentially can tap into five separate federal databases containing case files on investigations, reports on suspicious incidents and research material on terrorist weapons and tactics. But not all the facilities are in buildings that have adequate security to access those databases, GAO found.
Each center is independent and not controlled by the federal government. It was only last month that the Bush administration offered guidelines for the centers' missions and operations. The White House published a strategy paper advising centers to share information about all criminal activity, saying that could help uncovered potential terrorist plots.
The federal government, however, still needs to do a better job of explaining what information it can share and how much money it will provide, according to the congressional investigators.
At the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, watch commander Lori Norris said more federal money and guidelines could solve many of the center's frustrations. Arizona's center has representatives from the state's public safety, motor vehicles and liquor control departments, as well as its National Guard and city and county fire departments and federal agencies.
The Arizona center cannot access some of the federal information systems because its building does not meet security requirements. "We would be able to, but again, we don't have the funding for that," Norris said.
In addition, Norris said she would like the government to pick one or two systems for sharing information - not the three or four currently used. "I have to log on with four different passwords into these systems every single day and look at all this stuff," Norris said.
Many centers do not know what information to expect from Washington or how quickly they can expect to receive it.
"There's got to be a clearer definition as to when that information goes out and who it goes out to," Norris said. It's not uncommon, she said, for law enforcement officers to learn of important developments first from the news media.
But when information is sent to the states, it often comes more than once, said Richard Kelly, who heads New Jersey's fusion center.
"If DHS and FBI put out a joint bulletin, we get it twice," Kelly said. "If we ever did get to one standard policy in how to communicate down to the states and locals, that would be a good thing."
The GAO also found that some fusion centers have had a hard time hiring and training analysts, and many say they need federal guidance on what skills the analysts should have. Fusion centers have found it hard to get security clearances for their personnel, and find that even with appropriate clearances, information continues to be withheld. Nineteen centers told GAO that federal agencies, most often the FBI and the Homeland Security Department, wouldn't accept each others' clearances even though the law says they're supposed to.