By Mia Steinle. Republished from the Project on Government Oversight.
A Department of Homeland Security effort to improve the sharing of terrorism-related intelligence among state and local governments and with officials in Washington has yielded “shoddy” information and civil liberties violations, according to a Senate investigation.
The two-year bipartisan investigation by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that the Department of Homeland Security’s poor oversight of “fusion centers”—local intelligence-sharing hubs it created in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11—led to “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars” being wasted.
“The investigation found that top 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.
Up to $1.4 billion of federal funds has been spent on fusion centers since 2003, according to the investigation.
“But the report documents spending on items that did little to help share intelligence, including gadgets such as ‘shirt button’ cameras, $6,000 laptops and big-screen televisions. One fusion center spent $45,000 on a decked-out SUV that a city official used for commuting,” The Washington Post reported.
Intelligence coming from the fusion centers was often “flawed” and “unrelated to terrorism,” according to the investigation. Additionally, the investigation found that some unpublished documents contained personal information that violated federal privacy law.
“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 report said.
The investigation also found that many fusion center intelligence reports were completed and internally distributed days—or even months—late. This meant that potentially time-sensitive intelligence related to terrorism was sitting in a backlog in an office. For example, fusion center reports from June 2009 were “published” for internal use on average three months after the intelligence had been gathered, according to the Senate report. As of November 2011, the investigation found that 307 intelligence reports were backlogged. A DHS official interviewed by investigators called the publishing process “horribly inefficient,” according to the report.
The Senate report comes several weeks after The Constitution Project, a non-profit that advocates on issues such as privacy and accountability, released a report recommending reforms to fusion centers.
“If a national security program is not even effective, then it is not worth any intrusion into privacy rights and civil liberties,” according to The Constitution Project’s Sharon Bradford Franklin. “We agree with the report’s conclusion that serious improvements are needed for the training of fusion center personnel and also welcome the report’s clear recommendation that DHS must reform its policies to protect civil liberties and ‘adhere to the Constitution.’”
In a statement, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee that performed the investigation, said Congress should “clarify the purpose” of fusion centers, adding, “Fusion centers may provide valuable services in fields other than terrorism, such as contributions to traditional criminal investigations, public safety, or disaster response and recovery efforts.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the subcommittee, said in a statement that instead of strengthening counterterrorism efforts, the fusion centers “have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.”
Mia Steinle is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight.