CNHI News Service
Millions of taxpayer dollars spent on efforts to prevent terrorism were poorly invested, according to a study released this week by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The bipartisan investigation, led by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., found that the Department of Homeland Security’s work with state and local fusion centers “has not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.”
The Senate subcommittee spent two years examining federal support of fusion centers and evaluating the resulting counterterrorism intelligence. “Fusion centers” are collaborations of federal, state, local or tribal government agencies combining resources and expertise to “detect, prevent, investigate, apprehend and respond to criminal or terrorist activity.”
The investigation revealed that Homeland Security has spent between $289 million and $1.4 billion in state and local fusion centers tasked with a counterterrorism mission. Fusion centers operate primarily through Federal Emergency Management Agency grants, but FEMA officials said they have no mechanism in place to accurately account for the total amount of Homeland Security grant funding spent on supporting those fusion centers.
Through two federal administrations, accountability and training of intelligence officials sent to local fusion centers was inadequate, according to the investigation.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaida, the Department of Homeland Security was created. The Sept. 11 attacks were seen as a failure by government intelligence officials to protect the United States from the terrorist threat.
According to the subcommittee report, since 2003, “over 70 state and local fusion centers, supported in part with federal funds, have been created or expanded, in part to strengthen U.S. intelligence capabilities, particularly to detect, disrupt and respond to domestic terrorist activities.”
The subcommittee investigation found that intelligence forwarded from the fusion centers by Homeland Security intelligence officials assigned to those centers was “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.”
The problems and inadequacies uncovered were far-ranging. The investigation found that much of the focus on terrorism has been lost, with reporting focused on drugs or other criminal activity unrelated to terrorism. Often, reports were not forwarded in a timely manner. In a few cases, identified fusion centers did not actually exist.
In some instances, money channeled to state and local fusion agencies was used to purchase flat-screen TVs, sport utility vehicles, hidden cameras, cell phone tracking devices and “other surveillance equipment unrelated to the analytical mission of a fusion center.”
Based on its findings, the subcommittee made the following recommendations:
• Congress should clarify the purpose of providing federal monetary and other support for Homeland Security fusion center efforts. Congress should require Homeland Security to conform its efforts to match its counterterrorism statutory purpose or redefine the fusion center mission.
• Homeland Security should reform its intelligence reporting efforts at state and local fusion centers to eliminate duplication.
• Homeland Security should improve its training of intelligence reporters.
• Homeland Security should strictly align fusion center grant funding to meet federal needs.
• Homeland Security should track how much money it gives to each fusion center. FEMA should identify how much money it grants to states and urban areas for direct or indirect support of each individual fusion center and report those amounts annually to Congress.
• The program manager for the information sharing environment in the office of the director of national intelligence should evaluate fusion center capabilities and performance.
• Homeland Security should link funding of each fusion center to its value and performance.
• Homeland Security should timely disclose to Congress significant problems within its operations.
• Homeland Security should align its practices and guidelines to protect civil liberties so they adhere to the Constitution, federal law and its statutory mission. Homeland Security should strengthen its protections to prevent personnel from improperly collecting and retaining intelligence on constitutionally protected activity.