To recap: Fusion centers are state and local programs to gather domestic intelligence. (The Department of Justice defines them (6 MB pdf) as a “mechanism to exchange information and intelligence, maximize resources, streamline operations, and improve the ability to fight crime and terrorism by analyzing data from a variety of sources,” which includes private sector firms and anonymous tipsters.) One of the biggest complaints about these centers, which have been gathering intelligence data for several years, is that there is little information about who is in charge of what and about what exactly is happening in these centers.
Privacy and civil liberties questions were raised, as there were controversial reports issued from fusion centers about legal and peaceful activities. The ACLU issued a 2008 report, “What’s Wrong With Fusion Centers?” It identified problems with fusion centers, including: ambiguous lines of authority, role of private corporations and the military, use of data mining and secrecy surrounding the centers.
Now, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has strongly criticized fusion centers as ineffective and wasteful in a new report, “Federal Support for Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers” (committee pdf; archive pdf). The bipartisan report, released by subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), is highly critical of fusion centers and highlighted effectiveness, privacy and civil liberties questions. Notably: “The Subcommittee investigation found that [Department of Homeland Security]-assigned detailees to 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.” Also:
Despite reviewing 13 months’ worth of reporting originating from fusion centers from April 1, 2009 to April 30, 2010, the Subcommittee investigation could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot. Instead, the investigation found:
- Nearly a third of all reports – 188 out of 610 – were never published for use within DHS and by other members of the intelligence community, often because they lacked any useful information, or potentially violated department guidelines meant to protect Americans’ civil liberties or Privacy Act protections.
- In 2009, DHS instituted a lengthy privacy and civil liberties review process which kept most of the troubling reports from being released outside of DHS; however, it also slowed reporting down by months, and DHS continued to store troubling intelligence reports from fusion centers on U.S. persons, possibly in violation of the Privacy Act. […]
- Some terrorism-related “intelligence” reporting was based on older news releases or media accounts.
The report also found that DHS officials “consistently made positive public comments about the value and importance of fusion centers’ contributions to federal counterterrorism efforts, even as internal reviews and non-public assessments highlighted problems at the centers and dysfunction in DHS’ own operations.” The report said that there was a 2010 assessment of fusion centers conducted at the request of DHS and a 2011 assessment by DHS itself that showed problems at the fusion centers. The 2010 report “found widespread deficiencies in the centers’ basic counterterrorism information-sharing capabilities. DHS did not share that report with Congress or discuss its findings publicly.” While the findings of the 2011 report “were more positive, they too indicated ongoing weaknesses at the fusion centers.”
The subcommittee’s investigation notes that DHS officials’ made public statements describing fusion centers as “one of the centerpieces of our counterterrorism
strategy” and “a major force multiplier in the counterterrorism enterprise.” However, “The Subcommittee investigation found that the fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever.”
Here’s something I found interesting in the report. The investigation reviewed 610 Homeland Intelligence Reports and it “identified dozens of problematic or useless HIRs – dated, irrelevant, potentially violating civil liberties protections, even drawn from older public accounts.” However, there was little to no punishment for these potentially illegal actions, the report found:
The DHS officials who filed useless, problematic or even potentially illegal reports generally faced no sanction for their actions, according to documents and interviews. Supervisors spoke with them about their errors, but those problems were not noted on the reporting officials’ annual performance reviews, and did not influence managers’ decisions about their salary raises, bonuses or career advancement, DHS officials told the Subcommittee. In fact, the Subcommittee investigation was able to identify only one case in which an official with a history of serious reporting issues faced any consequences for his mistakes – he was required to attend an extra week of reporting training.
The Subcommittee investigation also learned that DHS did not adequately train personnel it sent out to perform the extremely sensitive task of reporting information about U.S. persons – a job fraught with the possibility of running afoul of Privacy Act protections of individuals’ rights to associate, worship, speak, and protest without being spied on by their own government.
The Washington Post reports that, “In a response Tuesday, the department condemned the report and defended the fusion centers, saying the Senate investigators relied on out-of-date data. The Senate investigators examined fusion center reports in 2009 and 2010 and looked at activity, training and policies over nine years, according to the report.” (Here’s a news report by the New York Times.)
Read the full report to learn more details of the Subcommittee’s criticisms of fusion centers, including accusations of wasteful spending, which I haven’t discussed. Also, here is the subcommittee’s press release on the report.