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Photograph of John S. Pistole

John S. Pistole
Deputy Director
Federal Bureau of Investigation

National Fusion Center Conference
Destin, Florida

March 7, 2007

Good morning. It’s great to be with you and to see so many people here. Some of you may have attended one of the regional fusion center conferences that were held last year. Each was such a hit that it seemed a national conference was in order. Seeing the turnout today is proof that the fusion center concept has caught fire across America. And that’s a good thing for America. Being in Destin, Florida, doesn’t hurt either!

I know you’re hearing a great deal about the nuts and bolts of fusion centers this week—from technology to training and from funding to policy development. Instead of getting in the weeds, I want to give you an overview of why fusion centers—why all of you in this room—are important to the FBI.

When you reach a certain age, you start to see the world in terms of “before” and “after.” Certain events serve as milestones in our lives, as points that change us personally, and that also change history. President Kennedy’s assassination. Man landing on the moon. Even the Colts winning the Superbowl.

Those who have lived through these moments remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when they happened. They were markers that divided our lives into a “before” and an “after.”

For those of us in law enforcement, September 11 was one of those milestones. It changed all of us personally. It changed America. And it changed the way we go about protecting America.

If you Google the phrase “before September 11,” almost half a million results pop up. Thousands upon thousands of them center on the intelligence failures that contributed, in part, to the hijackers’ success.

The bottom line is that before September 11, we didn’t have the technology, the partnerships, or the information sharing we needed to prevent the attack. After September 11, our challenge was to improve all three.

Before September 11, we didn’t have the comprehensive intelligence capability we needed to prevent the attack—from collection, to analysis, to sharing, to action. After September 11, our challenge was to strengthen each element.

Before September 11, all of us were collecting the dots, and all of us were connecting the dots—but we were all doing it individually. After September 11, our challenge was approach intelligence as a team.

We have all risen to the challenge. Speaking just from the FBI’s perspective, I can say we are much more connected to our state and local partners today than we were before September 11. We built new databases—and we also increased connectivity to them. We formed new task forces—and worked to integrate our partners so they could fully participate on them.

But the most important change we made is one that all of us in law enforcement had to make—and that is changing our understanding of what intelligence is.

A question I frequently hear is, “What exactly constitutes intelligence? How can you define it?” Simply put, it is information: vital information about those who want to harm us. But as you know, nothing is ever that simple. There is a world of difference between information and knowledge.

The problem we face is not a lack of information, but rather a flood of it. It’s like trying to sip water from a firehose. Our job is to wade through a river of unrelated and often indecipherable data, and to determine what is important, and who needs to know it.

But how do we turn all that raw information into valuable knowledge? How do we turn a name, a phone number, or an ATM receipt into a comprehensive understanding of our threat environment? How do we transform it into actionable intelligence that helps us prevent a terrorist attack?

That’s where the fusion centers come in.

Inside fusion centers, information collected by a police officer on a beat can be merged with information from an ongoing FBI investigation several states away. For example, many of you have heard the Chesapeake Bay Bridge story. Back in 2004, local law enforcement officers in Maryland stopped a car after a woman was observed videotaping the structure of the bridge. Red flags went up when the officers ran the driver’s name through NCIC. They then called the fusion center, in this case, the Terrorist Screening Center. It turned out that the driver of the car was wanted in connection with a Chicago investigation involving Hamas.

Now, we won’t have a story like that every day. But fusion centers do much more than just provide timely intelligence. They allow us to see both the macro and the microview of our threat environment. We can’t win a battle without understanding our adversary, and knowing every inch of the battlefield.

And in this interconnected world, it’s not easy to discern who our adversaries are, or where the battlefield is. They could be an international network of terrorists communicating in online chat-rooms. But they could also be members of a homegrown cell meeting in a small-town gym, as was the case in the U.K. with the July 7 bombers. The global battlefield may be one suicide bomber away from becoming a local battlefield.

We have to be attuned to what’s going on in our own backyards, and look for connections well beyond our state and national borders. In the FBI, we call this “ knowing our domain.”

We have to understand the full scope of threats in every region—not just when it comes to counterterrorism, but also criminal, cyber, and counterintelligence. We are working to identify potential targets, assess the threats against them, and then review our ability to combat those threats. And the threats will vary from region to region.

For example, those of you from the Midwest might focus on the threat of agroterrorism. The FBI’s San Francisco field office might focus on economic espionage and theft of trade secrets in Silicon Valley. Large cities might focus on high-risk targets, like power grids, subways, or nuclear power plants. Here in Florida, we might focus on port security.

As we scrutinize our territories, we know there may be gaps between potential threats and our ability to address those threats. Fusion centers help us narrow those gaps.

But their value is not limited to counterterrorism. As the face of terrorism evolves, fusion centers are tracking crimes and even individuals who are not usually associated with terrorist activity. For instance, fusion centers are keeping tabs on criminal activity—everything from tax evasion to cigarette smuggling to robbery. On the surface, these may seem like relatively low-level crimes that only have a local impact.

But several years ago, we uncovered a cigarette-smuggling ring operating out of North Carolina. Members of the cell were transporting the cigarettes across state borders to sell them at a profit—and were using the profits to support Hezbollah in Lebanon.

And in August 2005, police in Torrance, California, arrested two men in a gas station robbery. When they searched the men’s apartment, they found documents listing the addresses of U.S. military recruiting stations and synagogues. They called the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and together we uncovered a terrorist cell, disrupted a terrorist plot, and possibly saved many lives.

We never know when something that seems typical may be connected to something treacherous.

That’s why the fusion centers are so vital. And that’s why the FBI fully supports fusion centers. We have committed almost 200 agents and analysts to 33 centers around the country. We are there to participate as partners, and to make sure we are fully integrated with law enforcement across the country.

We have seen the value of this integration time and again. The fusion centers allow us to analyze an issue from every angle, instead of our own limited perspectives. They let us bridge the gap from information to knowledge, and from knowledge to action.

Mark Twain once said, “It is wiser to find out than to suppose.” In our business, there will always be some element of supposing. In this information age, that is unavoidable. But fusion centers cut down the supposing and increase the knowing.

One of our special agents in charge refers to fusion centers as “interagency communication on steroids.” And it’s true. A couple of weeks ago, I visited the fusion center in Phoenix, and I saw this firsthand.

Federal, state, and local officers from a myriad of agencies work together under one roof, sharing information as if they are one agency. The officers, agents, and analysts were not meeting as strangers over conference calls, but as colleagues over coffee.

Like all fusion centers, it was immediately clear that this was not just a collection point for information. It was a coalescing point—an integration point—fusing the 30,000-foot strategic look with on-the-ground action. Information comes in, and then everyone adds his or her own insight and value. This not only creates a more complete picture of the threats we face, it puts us in a position to prevent crime and terrorism, instead of just reacting to them.

This paid off for the Arizona fusion center last summer. During a drug bust in Phoenix, police found a suspicious vial of white powder. The powder was the explosive TATP—the same substance Richard Reid put in his shoes and tried to detonate aboard American Airlines Flight 63, and the same substance used by the London bombers.

We heard the news at FBI Headquarters within minutes. The investigation eventually revealed that this was not a terrorist incident—and it also revealed an outstanding level of preparation, communication, and integration throughout the law enforcement community.

As The Washington Post reported, “the news…went the old-fashioned way, with an Arizona police official walking across the hall to tell his friend in the local FBI [Joint Terrorism] Task Force, who then picked up the telephone and called headquarters.”

That’s the value of fusion centers. Before September 11, it might have taken much longer for such information to travel. But after September 11, we tore down the walls that divided us. We built up our capabilities as a team, instead of being territorial. We planned carefully and thought creatively. And the fruits of these efforts— your efforts—are right here in this room.

I was thinking about various meanings of the word “fusion” on my way here. It means “merging,” “combining,” “blending.” But there’s also an element of physics to it.

Now, I’m no nuclear physicist, but I do know how to use Wikipedia. This is what Wikipedia says about fusion: “It takes considerable energy to force nuclei to fuse…but the fusion…will generally release more energy than it took to force them together.”

Now, there’s obviously a lot more to it. But I was most struck by the idea that fusion involves absorbing energy, and then producing it. That’s what all of you are doing in your fusion centers. Each of you contributes your expertise, your information, and your resources. And as your energy fuses with that of the other agencies, it produces something larger, and results in a surge of collective energy.

That collective energy is what we need to win out against all threats.

The great coach Vince Lombardi once said, “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.” Scientists call it synergy—the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. None of us alone has enough money, manpower, or expertise to protect America. But by combining our resources, we collectively have created first-class facilities that do first-class intelligence work.

Working together is not just the best option—it is the only option. By working together, we are making America safer. And by working together, we will prevail.

Thank you for your work with the FBI, and for all you do for law enforcement and for the American people. God bless you all.


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