Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Blog

Congressional investigators have found that “fusion centers,” the much-hyped collaborative link between local law enforcement and DHS, has failed to provide any useful intelligence. In a lengthy and scathing report, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded that the fusion centers “forwarded intelligence of uneven quality — oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.” The report details waste and fraud in the program, as well as inaccuracies in DHS’s public statements about the program and failure by DHS to report their own negative assessments of the fusion centers’ counterterrorism efforts.

The inquiry spanned two years and was spearheaded by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), the committee’s ranking member. “It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said Sen. Coburn.

Waste and fraud in fusion centers are undoubtedly concerning, but they pale in comparison to the civil liberties implications of poorly administered intelligence-gathering on the local level. The inquiry did find that some initial training was given to fusion center staff on civil liberties issues, but a short initial training session is hardly enough to train law enforcement officers in the nuances of how to safeguard civil rights and civil liberties when conducting intelligence activities. The report also notes that technical advice was available to fusion centers should they need it, but offering ad-hoc advice certainly does not constitute oversight.

The Senate inquiry found regular occurrences of fusion centers gathering intelligence and authoring reports that violated citizens’ constitutional protections; offending staff members were never reprimanded. The areas in which the DHS fusion centers overstepped legal boundaries include: “Reporting on First Amendment-protected activities lacking a nexus to violence or criminality; reporting on or improperly characterizing political, religious or ideological speech that is not explicitly violent or criminal; and attributing to an entire group the violent or criminal acts of one or a limited number of the group’s members.” The inquiry contains many troubling anecdotes, including fusion center staff surveilling and authoring a trite report on a U.S. citizen’s trip to a mosque to deliver a seminar on positive parenting.

The findings of the subcommittee have been public for a week, and so far have not gotten the reaction from members of Congress that they warrant. Many lawmakers, including members of the Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs, have gone so far as to criticize the subcommittee’s report. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) released a statement challenging the report, and defending the need for information-sharing and “connecting the dots,” citing examples of fusion centers assisting in counterterrorism operations. Sen. Lieberman’s statement makes it abundantly clear that he did not bother to read the report. The report does not challenge the stated mission of the fusion centers is important, but does challenge whether or not it is being effectively accomplished. Lieberman’s defense of fusion centers ignores several key findings of the subcommittee’s report, including that DHS personnel  authored intelligence products that violated the civil rights and civil liberties of American citizens, withheld information about the fusion center program from Congress, conducted no meaningful oversight over fusion center activities, failed to account for an unknown amount of taxpayer funds it spent on the fusion center program, and could point to no single instance of a fusion center preventing a terrorist attack. Furthermore, the “success stories” that Lieberman cites as indicative of the value of fusion centers are some of the very same that the subcommittee report found to have been greatly exaggerated by DHS officials.

This inquiry revealing rampant fraud, waste, and incompetence at fusion centers across the country raises serious questions about the role of the Department of Homeland Security in counterterrorism efforts. Of the hundreds of fusion center reports reviewed by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, a mere 94 of them were found to contain information relevant to terrorism. Of these 94 reports, most were found to be either not timely or duplicates of a faster, better-administrated information-sharing program run by the FBI. The inquiry makes the case that the sort of information-sharing central to the mission of fusion centers is already being done by other agencies involved in counterterrorism, with greater effectiveness and greater regard for civil liberties. The fact that a program that is spoken of publicly as the vital centerpiece of DHS’s counterterrorism efforts was found to be so ineffective and fraught with malfeasance suggests that the Department of Homeland Security as a whole is struggling to figure out its role in preventing terror. If fusion centers are as representative of DHS’s efforts as DHS’s leadership says, then we should be worried that disregard for civil liberties, redundancy, and overall inefficacy are the norm for the department. 

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