Homeland security chief headlines Kansas City conference

KANSAS CITY | Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says fusion centers like one in Jefferson City are the centerpieces of intelligence-sharing efforts to thwart terrorism and other dangerous risks to communities.

Napolitano spoke Wednesday at the National Fusion Center Conference in Kansas City, where she reminded the nearly 1,000 local, state and federal law enforcers and emergency responders that they are the front line in the fight against terror.

"The reason we have Homeland Security, and the reason we have fusion centers, is we did not have the capacity to connect the dots on various bits of information prior to 9/11," she said.

The centers began popping up in 2006 as a way to coordinate information sharing between various agencies regarding terrorist threats, criminal activity and other dangers. Officials say that as of February, 70 centers were either operating or in the process of opening across the country.

Napolitano said it's too early to know how many centers ultimately will be created.

"What is the right number? We are at the stage now where that has yet to be answered," she said.

While the purpose of the centers is to share and analyze information, they are not in the business of eavesdropping or otherwise violating people's civil rights, Napolitano said. That issue was one of the main topics during the three-day conference.

"Fusion centers are not domestic spy agencies and not designed to invade the privacy of citizens," she said.

She said the centers aren't just for gathering information and passing it on, but instead are designed to make sense of the information they receive and look for patterns that indicate criminal acts.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said the fusion center in Jefferson City already has been paying dividends, resulting in arrests and cold cases that have been resolved.

"We're not out there snooping on anybody," Nixon said. "This isn't about snooping. Fusion centers take existing law enforcement resources and analyze information."

The centers are owned and operated by state and local governments, funded through a mix of local budgets and federal grants. The Department of Homeland Security sent more than $327 million to fusion centers from 2004 through 2008.