Post by Aaron Cynic
Department of Homeland Security fusion centers, intelligence gathering hubs which “serve as focal points within the state and local government for the receipt, analysis, gather and sharing of threat-related information” between levels of government in regards to terrorism might not be worth the billions of dollars the Bush and Obama administrations have spent operating them. A two year bipartisan investigation by the Senate found that not only do the centers often fail in producing useful intelligence, but also repeatedly violate the civil liberties of American citizens.
According to the report, DHS operates some 77 fusion centers in almost every state and most major cities in the country. In 2006, intelligence Chief Charles Allen submitted a plan for the centers to then secretary Michael Chertoff, saying they would be “critical sources of unique law enforcement and threat information.” By the end of that year operations had begun at 37 centers in several states. While initially, some may have thought the centers were to be used solely in counterterrorism efforts, current Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano clarified their use and capabilities in 2009. Speaking at a conference in 2009, Napolitano said:
“Fusion Centers are not the same as your Joint Terrorism Task Forces…The Fusion Centers are designed to look at many, many more things beyond that…A serial kidnapper, a gang or organized crime syndicate in an area, a serial or pattern murderer all have been handled by Fusion Centers.”
This year, Napolitano said that the mission of fusion centers is “terrorism prevention, but it’s also much broader than that.” So while the mission of DHS fusion centers supposedly relates to counterterrorism efforts, in practice, the centers warehouse all sorts of information, which includes data related to First Amendment activities.
The report first highlights the ineffectiveness of the centers:
- Nearly one third of reports (188 of 610) were never published for use within DHS because they lacked useful information or violated the guidelines meant to protect civil liberties.
- Most reporting wasn’t about terrorists or terrorist activity, but criminal activity.
- Some intelligence reporting was based on media accounts or old news releases.
- An investigation found that DHS only required a week of training for officials before they were sent to fusion centers “to report sensitive domestic intelligence, largely concerning U.S. persons.”
- Officials who authored “useless or potentially illegal” intelligence reports faced no reprimands.
- One former branch chief said of the intelligence his unit produced: “There were times when it was, ‘what a bunch of crap is coming through.’”
Additionally, the Senate investigation found several instances of misappropriated funds. At five fusion centers which lacked “must have intelligence capabilities,” the investigating Subcommittee found state and local agencies spent federal grant money on flat screen TV’s, SUV’s which were given away to other agencies and surveillance equipment, including cell phone trackers and “shirt button” cameras “unrelated to the analytical mission of a fusion center.”
- In 2008, the Arizona Department of Public Safety used more than $33,000 of grant funds meant for a center to buy a Chevy Tahoe.
- In 2009, officials from a fusion center in Arizona spent at least $64,000 on a surveillance monitoring room, though federal guidelines for “key capabilities do not include covert or surreptitious intelligence gathering.”
- In 2011, a fusion center in San Diego spent $25,000 on surveillance equipment, including pinhole cameras and wireless “shirt button” cameras. Additionally, the same center spent $200,000 on 116 computers for 80 full time employees and admitted they were for other law enforcement personnel. Finally, the center spent nearly $75,000 on 55 flat screen televisions for “open-source monitoring,” which officials defined as “watching the news.”
As if ineffectiveness and wasteful spending aren’t enough, the investigation found several instances where if certain draft reports had been published, it would have violated the Privacy Act. Even though a 2008 memo read:
“You are prohibited from collecting or maintaining information on U.S. persons solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the U.S. Constitution, such as the First Amendment protected freedoms,”
DHS personnel went ahead and did just that. One draft report was on a list of reading suggestions by a Muslim community group. It noted four titles on the list were authored by persons with a record in the U.S. intelligence counterterrorism database. Another report on the California based biker gang the Mongols centered around a pamphlet members handed out about how to calmly and courteously handle a traffic stop by police, rather than illegal activity. The investigation found several other instances of officials monitoring and drafting reports on Muslims based solely on their religious identity. While these reports were cancelled, the investigation said “they should not have been drafted at all.”
Homeland Security disputed the findings of the investigation. A spokesperson, Matthew Chandler, told the New York Times the Senate report on fusion centers is “out of date, inaccurate, and misleading.” Regardless of the statement of DHS PR people, the facts are clear. In nearly 6 years, the Department of Homeland Security estimates it spent somewhere between $289 million and $1.4 billion on these centers, and they seem to have caused more confusion than anything else. Worse yet, some of the activity taking place shows not only a careless disregard for the civil liberties of citizens, but an active interest in violating them. Given the activities we’ve seen other law enforcement agencies engage in these past years involving activists and demonstrators, this sadly seems to be the rule rather than the exception.