Free men must guard against the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in government.

— James Madison

Over the past several months the two principal presidential contenders have inundated the public with their plans to fix whatever they deem broken, from sluggish job growth to Chinese currency practices. Don't say you haven't been warned.

Americans are always asking politicians to "do something" about various problems. Politicians, unfortunately, often oblige with solutions that create other problems. Take, for instance, fusion centers.

In the aftermath of 9/11, various government agencies, it was said, had been unable to "connect the dots" because they did not share information. To facilitate such sharing, fusion centers where federal, state and local officials could join forces were created. Yet despite hoovering up hundreds of millions of dollars, those centers have produced almost nothing of productive use in the fight against terrorism.

So concludes a two-year inquiry by the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The report says the work of fusion centers is "often shoddy, rarely timely, . . . occasionally taken from already published sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism."

The Senate investigation "could identify no [fusion-center] reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot." That is, in part, because "most reporting was not about terrorists or possible terrorist plots, but about criminal activity, largely arrest reports pertaining to drug, cash or human smuggling."

What little terrorism-related reports did get produced often emerged so slowly they were instantly obsolete. In one case, a Homeland Security bulletin relying on fusion-center information warned about the theft of high explosives from an airport storage unit . . . six months and three weeks after a BATF press release about that same theft.

Hence, one Department of Homeland Security official described the fusion centers' work as "predominantly useless." Another was more blunt, calling it "a bunch of crap." Fusion centers have used the federal money lavished on them — an uncertain sum, because DHS has no clue as to exactly how much it has allocated — to buy flat-screen TVs, "surveillance equipment unrelated to the analytical mission" of a counterterrorism center, and SUVs that "they then gave away to other local agencies." Arizona's fusion center, for instance, bought a Chevy Tahoe with Homeland Security funds, then turned it over for use as a K-9 vehicle by the campus cops at Arizona State.

But wait — it gets worse. Homeland Security officials knew all this. They even wrote reports about it. But they did not actually do anything about it, except lie: "In the middle of [a] five-month period [in 2009] when intelligence reporting from fusion centers had all but ground to a halt, DHS Secretary [Janet] Napolitano testified that state and local fusion centers were 'key tools for stakeholders at all levels of government.' " Later, when Senate investigators asked for one internal DHS report, "DHS at first denied it existed, then disputed whether it could be shared with Congress, before ultimately providing a copy."

To liberals, this is a perfect example of the security-industrial state gone wild. To conservatives, it is a perfect example of government ineptitude and waste. They're both right. There is another angle too: mission creep. Many fusion centers have turned their attention from terrorism to other issues (which, in turn, broadens their opportunity for federal funding). Nevada's fusion center mostly reports on incidents of school violence. Its mission statement no longer even mentions terrorism.

This is, in many ways, an old story. As Robert Higgs (in "Crisis and Leviathan") and others have amply documented, government uses crises to amass power and resources far beyond what is necessary, and retains those powers and resources long after each crisis has subsided. The fusion-center story is simply another chapter in that seemingly endless tale.

For Virginians, there may be a silver lining: The commonwealth's 56-employee fusion center, based at the State Police headquarters in Chesterfield County, does not get even a mention. Given the blistering tone of the report and the egregious anecdotes about fusion centers elsewhere, that might qualify as a compliment by omission.

On the other hand, the fusion center in Maryland isn't mentioned either. Last year a glowing news story reported on one example of the crackerjack work being done there: A police officer noticed a truck with plastic pallets driving down the road. He investigated and found out they had been stolen. This might not have happened had he not seen a fusion-center bulletin noting that bakers and grocers were losing a lot of money because of pallet thefts lately.

A grateful nation sends its thanks.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.