Bipartisan Senate Investigation: Fusion Centers Do Little to Counter Terror, Threaten Civil Liberties

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Date: 
October 4, 2012

State and local fusion centers across the country threaten civil liberties while doing little to support counterterrorism activities, according to a two-year examination by Senate investigators.  A report released at a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Oct. 2, 2012 says that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has spent nearly $1.4 billion on funding fusion center projects, but that the intelligence they produce is “of uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties.”  The 107-page report  criticized Congress and DHS officials for not “providing the oversight and direction necessary to make sure those efforts were cost effective and useful,” and recommends DHS “align its practices and guidelines to protect civil liberties, so they adhere to the Constitution.”

Numbering almost 80 across the country, fusion centers were created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to serve as central hubs for sharing information compiled by state, local and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.   

But after reviewing 13 months' worth of the fusion centers' output, Senate investigators concluded not a single report uncovered a terrorist threat or helped disrupt an active plot.  In fact, most fusion center reporting did not involve terrorists or potential plots, but instead focused on arrest information related to drug, cash or human smuggling.  Many centers, the report states, "didn't consider counterterrorism an explicit part of their mission, and federal officials said some were simply not concerned with doing counterterrorism work." 

“It’s troubling that the very fusion centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), the Subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation. The findings were backed by the panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI).

The Senate’s probe reviewed 610 homeland information reports produced by the fusion centers. Of them, 188 were squelched by DHS internal reviewers who deemed them either useless or were in violation of rules meant to guard civil liberties, the report said. Examples cited in the Senate investigation included intelligence reports about an American Muslim community group's list of book recommendations, and another was on parenting advice. An intelligence report about a pamphlet produced by a biker group advising its members to be courteous to police officers during traffic stops was also flagged as possibly violating First Amendment rights.

Another cancelled intelligence report identified a U.S. citizen giving a lecture at a mosque. The draft contained no derogatory information on the speaker or the mosque, although it noted, “that [the subject’s] visit . . . could be to strengthen ties with the . . . mosque as well as to conduct fundraising and recruiting for the sake of foreign terrorist organizations.” This assertion was not supported by evidence, and was later removed by a DHS reviewer, according to the Senate report. “The number of things that scare me about this report are almost too many to write into this [form],” one DHS reviewer stated about the submission.

The investigation also found that DHS only required intelligence officials to take a five-day course before they were charged with writing reports on sensitive domestic intelligence.  Additionally, fusion center intelligence officers who routinely wrote “useless” reports or used information that endangered the privacy rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens did not face reprimand or punishment, according to the bipartisan report.  In one case, Senate investigators found an intelligence officer who had had 26 of his 35 draft reports cancelled during a one year period because DHS reviewer officers “explicitly noted civil liberties concerns when canceling at least 12, because they improperly reported on Constitutionally-protected activity.”

“I cancelled a lot of them,” a Senior Reports Officer quoted in the Senate report said about that intelligence officer’s work. “I would say the person must not have understood what was reportable and what wasn’t . . . . You could see this was a pattern.”

One report that got past DHR reviewers, “The Modern Militia Movement,” was issued by the Missouri Information Analysis Center in 2009.  It provoked public outrage when it attempted to draw connections between constitutionally protected political activity and violent extremism.  The controversial DHS report said:

“alleged that “militia members most commonly associate with 3rd party political groups,” including the Libertarian Party. It stated that “these [militia] members are usually supporters of . . . Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin, and Bob Barr.” Further, it claimed militia members might display signs, cartoons or bumper stickers featuring “anti-government rhetoric,” as well as “anti-immigration, and anti-abortion” material. Most surprising to some, it identified as “the most common symbol displayed by militia members” the so-called “Gadsden Flag,” featuring a coiled snake and the words, “Don’t Tread on Me.””

Worse yet, "senior DHS officials were aware of the problems... but did not always inform Congress of the issues, nor ensure the problems were fixed in a timely manner." DHS conducted two assessments of fusion centers between 2010 and 2011, finding “widespread deficiencies” and “ongoing weaknesses.” When the Senate subcommittee requested a copy of the 2010 assessment, “DHS at first denied it existed, then disputed whether it could be shared with Congress, before ultimately providing a copy.”

The Senate report outlined several recommendations for improving the system, including calling on DHS to “strengthen its protections to prevent DHS personnel from improperly collecting and retaining intelligence on constitutionally protected activity.” It also called for “promptly barring poorly performing personnel from issuing domestic intelligence reports involving Americans.”

Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, who testified at the Senate hearing defended the intelligence work being done at fusion centers. "We look at terrorism as a criminal activity," Sena said. "Oftentimes when we do investigations, the activity that was involved was not somebody out there building the bomb. It was individuals who were involved in criminal activity to raise funds for terrorist organizations,” he added.

During the two-year long investigation, the Senate subcommittee reviewed more than 80,000 pages of documents, including reviews, audits, intelligence reports, emails, grant applications, news accounts, and scholarly articles.  It conducted a nationwide survey of fusion centers, and interviewed over 50 current and former DHS officials, outside experts, and state and local officials.