Fusion Centers: Expensive, Practically Useless, and Bad for Your Liberty

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs has just released a report [pdf] on the "fusion centers" that pepper the law-enforcement landscape -- shadowy intelligence-sharing shops run on the state and local level but heavily funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security. It is a devastating document. When a report's recommendations include a plea for the DHS to "track how much money it gives to each fusion center," you know you're dealing with a system that has some very basic problems.

After reviewing 13 months' worth of the fusion centers' output, Senate investigators concluded that the centers' reports were "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." One report offered the vital intelligence that "a certain model of automobile had folding rear seats that provided access to the trunk without leaving the car," a feature deemed notable because it "could be useful to human traffickers." Others highlighted illegal activities by people in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database, which sounds useful until you hear just what those people did that attracted the centers' attention. One man was caught speeding. Another shoplifted some shoes. TIDE itself, according to the Senate report, is filled not just with suspected terrorists but with their "associates," a term broad enough to rope in a two-year-old boy.

Nearly a third of the reports were not even circulated after they were written, sometimes because they contained no useful information, sometimes because they "overstepped legal boundaries" in disturbing ways: "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." (One analyst, for example, felt the need to note that a Muslim community group's list of recommended readings included four items whose authors were in the TIDE database.) Interestingly, while the DHS usually refused to publish these problematic reports, the department also retained them for an "apparantly indefinite" period.

Why did the centers churn out so much useless and illegal material? A former employee says officers were judged "by the number [of reports] they produced, not by quality or evaluations they received." Senate investigators were "able to identify only one case in which an official with a history of serious reporting issues faced any consequences for his mistakes." Specifically, he had to attend an extra week of training.

Other issues identified in the Senate report:

• Some of the fusion centers touted by the Department of Homeland Security do not, in fact, exist.

• Centers have reported threats that do not exist either. An alleged Russian "cyberattack" turned out to be an American network technician accessing a work computer remotely while on vacation.

• DHS "was unable to provide an accurate tally of how much it had granted to states and cities to support fusion centers efforts." Instead it offered "broad estimates of the total amount of federal dollars spent on fusion center activities from 2003 to 2011, estimates which ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion."

When you aren't keeping track of how much you're spending, it becomes hard to keep track of what that money is being spent on. All sorts of dubious expenses slipped by. A center in San Diego "spent nearly $75,000 on 55 flat-screen televisions," according to the Senate report. "When asked what the televisions were being used for, officials said they displayed calendars, and were used for 'open-source monitoring.' Asked to define 'open-source monitoring,' SD-LECC officials said they meant 'watching the news.'"

The report is also filled with signs of stonewalling. A "2010 assessment of state and local fusion centers conducted at the request of DHS found widespread deficiencies in the centers' basic counterterrorism information-sharing capabilities," for example. "DHS did not share that report with Congress or discuss its findings publicly. When the Subcommittee requested the assessment as part of its investigation, DHS at first denied it existed, then disputed whether it could be shared with Congress, before ultimately providing a copy."

And then there's the matter of mission creep. Many centers have adopted an "all-crime, all-hazards" approach that shifts their focus from stopping terrorism and onto a broader spectrum of threats. You could make a reasonable case that this is a wiser use of public resources -- terrorism is rare, after all, and the DHS-driven movement away from the all-hazards approach in the early post-9/11 years had disastrous results. Unfortunately, the leading "hazards" on the fusion centers' agenda appear to be drugs and illegal aliens. At any rate, the DHS should stop citing the centers as a key part of America's counterterrorism efforts if those centers have found better (or easier) things to do than trying to fight terror.

Bonus pdf: "What's Wrong with Fusion Centers?"

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  • Whiterun Guard||

    This is what Americans want and deserve. The illusion of security and safety in exchange for liberty. And it has reached self-perpetuating mass, so don't act like it's possible for it to go anywhere, this is ours forever.

  • Restoras||

    I could see a Matheny album cover as Fusion but I'm not sure about Miles Davis.

  • Dick Fitzwell||

    Weather Report?

  • NotSure||

    When watching tv shows like Nikita, one gets the impression that the US spy agencies are populated with sexy and super smart people. In real life its like this article states, its mega bureaucracies filled with incompetents and thugs, but as long as most Americans believe that these agencies are saving their lives every day it, the will keep on giving them the money.

  • SugarFree||

    You don't see any tigers around, right? The rock is working. When the rock isn't working, the rock simply needs more money.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    How much for the rock!? I really need one now.

  • sarcasmic||

    mega bureaucracies filled with incompetents and thugs

    That's just government in general.

  • Gray Ghost||

    In real life its like this article states, its mega bureaucracies filled with incompetents and thugs...

    After reading memoirs from ex-CIA employees, like, Blowing My Cover, I agree with you. Dear Lord, are these the best people they could find?

  • ||

    The Department of Homeland Security and its powers are clearly authorized in Article HERP, Section DERP of the Constitution. Stop supporting the terrorists, Reason!1!1!

  • John||

    Useless is too weak of a word. The problem is that you cannot do "intelligence" in the conventional way regarding terrorism. Intelligence in the past meant spying on our enemies. Intelligence meant things like figuring out just how fast the new Soviet fighter flew or who was likely to be the new chief of staff of the Red Army and so forth. It was information that allowed policy makers to make informed decisions. The problem is that terrorism rarely works that way. Intelligence has always been about the five Ws. But with terrorism once you know the five Ws about something, it ceases to be intelligence and becomes a criminal case.

  • John||

    In the terrorism context traditional intelligence is left in a no man's land. Anytime you come up with real actionable intelligence, it immediately turns into a criminal case and you just go arrest the guy. So there is really nothing these fusion cells could ever produce. And worse still, even if there was, the actual amount of terrorism related information is so small there would be nothing for most of them to do anyway. Indeed that is the whole problem with terrorism and why it is so hard to stop. It is a needle in a haystack. Worse case there is at most a handful of terrorist plots going on at any given time. One the one hand, that is a pretty horrible thing since any one successful plot can result in the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. But on the other hand in comparison to the size of the entire country that is nothing. Even if there a dozen terrorist plots going on right now, which I doubt, there would still be little or nothing for most fusion centers to do. The entire program is nothing but an ineffective bureaucratic response to a difficult problem.

  • Dan Clore||

  • landypeter@gmail.com||

    ALERT: Local neighborhood watch networks are recruited into Citizen Spy Syndicates, trained and coordinated by Fusion Centers to spy, fabricate and frame bogus national threat alerts against law abiding, liberty promoting American patriots. Here's a peek into the underworld of citizen spies trained to report, harass, mob target and violate America's Civil and Constitutional rights.
    Next link illustrates currently exploding "modern", Fusion Center recruited, trained and coordinated, cult-hate mobs opposing freedom, Constitution and Civil rights targeting law abiding, liberty promoting American patriots.
    ...You have to see this to believe actual racketeering promoted in broad daylight ...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....ure=colike
    there's much more expose about this incredible, brazen, daylight racketeering legalized and conducted under the protection of law enforcement tyranny.
    The 72 Threat Fusion Centers Were Designed To Threaten You
    http://www.infowars.com/the-72.....eaten-you/
    Best Regards,
    ogs-silentcrimes.blogspot.com

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