The nation’s vast network of anti-terrorism “fusion centers” for law enforcement have produced shoddy, untimely and often useless intelligence reports that have done little to keep the U.S. safer, a scathing U.S. Senate report concludes.
The 141-page report, a copy of which was obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, parent organization of California Watch, identified problems with nearly every significant aspect of the Department of Homeland Security’s more than 70 fusion centers, which were designed for law enforcement to coordinate their intelligence gathering.
The report marks one of the most blistering indictments to date of the Department of Homeland Security’s domestic intelligence operation. The department, investigators conclude, “has not attempted to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the value federal taxpayers have received for that investment.”
Fusion centers were created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the best way to get local, state and federal officials to share terrorism-related information, speak with each other and “connect the dots” of terrorist plots before they happened.
Many of the conclusions in the new U.S. Senate Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee probe mirror a CIR report last year on the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence and analysis office, which supports the fusion centers. The report found that intelligence and analysis often produced "intelligence spam" that relied on stale information and provided little valuable analysis, and which was widely ignored by federal counterterrorism officials.
In the rush to stand-up the department’s intelligence arm, the short-staffed office relied heavily on contractors, such as Booz Allen Hamilton and General Dynamics, which reaped millions of federal dollars.
In the new Senate report, investigators found that with the lack of oversight, fusion centers spent money wildly, including a San Diego fusion center that bought 55 flat-screen televisions at a cost of $75,000 to watch the news and display calendars.
Some fusion centers only exist on paper. For instance, taxpayers have shelled out millions of dollars in federal grants for a planned Philadelphia fusion center, but Department of Homeland Security dollars for it have since been frozen, and as of August this year, "the center still did not physically exist," according to the report.
All told, Homeland Security officials couldn’t account accurately for how much money has been spent on fusion centers, offering an estimate that ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion, a billion-dollar swing.
The investigation also found that the department only required intelligence officials to take a five-day course before they were sent to the fusion centers to write reports on sensitive domestic intelligence, often concerning people in the U.S.
Officials who routinely wrote useless reports or used information that endangered the privacy rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens didn’t face reprimand or punishment, according to the bipartisan report. The report noted that the San Diego fusion center had purchased a covert video recorder with a "shirt-button camera." Key capabilities for the fusion centers "do not include covert or surreptitious intelligence gathering," the report said.
The investigation – which was led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. – found that even Homeland Security officials questioned the value of fusion center reports citing inadequate training and an emphasis on quantity over quality.
Harold “Skip” Vandover, a former official who oversaw reporting, told investigators that while his unit produced intelligence he was proud of, “There were times when it was, ‘What a bunch of crap is coming through.’ ”
“You can barely teach people what the word (‘intelligence’) means” in a week, he told investigators. “All the problems we saw – are all linked right straight back to training.”
Department of Homeland Security officials pushed back hard on the report, calling it “out of date, inaccurate and misleading,” and saying that they have addressed or corrected many of the problems outlined in the report. They said that fusion centers help law enforcement who face terrorist threats or criminal activity by providing classified and unclassified information from the federal government.
Matthew Chandler, a Homeland Security Department spokesman, said the report misunderstands the role of federal government in supporting fusion centers and overlooks benefits to federal, state and local agencies.
“Homeland security begins with hometown security, and fusion centers play a vital role in keeping communities safe all across America,” he said.
Born out of the intelligence units of major metropolitan police departments and state emergency agencies or started from scratch, fusion centers helped fuel the technology-driven, intelligence-led policing strategy now in fashion.
Lawmakers in 2007 designated the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as the lead federal partner to coordinate with and support state and local fusion centers with funding, technology and training. The department also currently has its own officials in 62 fusion centers.
Scores of reports were spiked because they contained information that was old, useless or ran “afoul” of privacy and civil liberties protections. Those published often lacked terrorism-related information or showed up months after the information would have been relevant.
Yet in championing fusion centers, Homeland Security officials have overstated results while withholding evaluations from Congress on the program's progress, the report found.
Many of the “success stories” the department highlights have to do with everyday crimes like car thefts and drug activity.
One of the most frequently cited examples involves the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant accused in 2009 of planning to blow up a New York City subway. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said a Colorado fusion center played a “key role” in “fusing” information, but Senate investigators concluded much of the work “could have – hopefully, would have – occurred absent a fusion center.”
Other times, reports have been simply wrong, such as an Illinois fusion center’s analysis that a Russian hacker stole usernames and passwords to gain access to a local water district’s control system. In fact, a technician was working on the system while on vacation in Russia. He told The Associated Press that a phone call to him would have defused the situation.
Investigators pointed to an early 2011 memo from the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center announcing a “strong suspicion” that gunman Jared Loughner was tied to the American Renaissance. This "group" amounted to little more than a newsletter, however, to which Loughner didn’t subscribe. The intel memo nonetheless suggested Loughner shot Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people because Giffords was “the first Jewish female” elected to a high political position, which is not accurate.
Investigators concluded that Congress shares some of the blame, as lawmakers on dozens of committees and subcommittees have called hundreds of hearings, briefings and site visits without fully uncovering or examining the problems that have plagued fusion centers and the department’s intelligence program.
The report recommends Congress and the department revisit support of fusion centers, improve oversight of federal grants to the program, assess information sharing and strengthen protections of civil liberties in intelligence reports.
Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, pointed to their role in helping provide accurate and timely information on the recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin and to investigate the backgrounds of suspects. Bringing together local, state and federal officials allows budget-strapped agencies to pool resources.
"We look at terrorism as a criminal activity," Sena said. "Oftentimes when we do investigations, the activity that was involved was not somebody out there building the bomb. It was individuals who were involved in criminal activity to raise funds for terrorist organizations.”
The fusion association lobbies for more federal funding to state and local agencies, but investigators learned it's a private organization "funded by corporations who seek to do business with fusion centers," including Microsoft, the report states.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.