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

An explosive Senate report


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?"