WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has endangered the civil liberties of Americans and spent millions on collecting not counterterrorism intel but “a bunch of crap,” a Senate subcommittee investigation of DHS data fusion centers has found.
The Senate’s bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released on Tuesday their findings of a two-year-long probe that has left lawmakers scratching their heads over an array of mismanagement, multi-million-dollar flubs and direct violations of constitutionally-protected civil liberties taking place at fusion centers: special intelligence-processing facilities that now total 77 across the United States.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress tasked the DHS to begin implementing a coast-to-coast system of highly-connected fusion centers that would allow for greater ease in sharing terrorism-related information between state, local and federal authorities. Under the direction of Chairman Sen. Carl Levin and Ranking Minority Member Sen. Tom Coburn, though, the subcommittee that includes lawmakers from both sides of the aisle concludes that the initiative has all but failed at accomplishing its goals.
The Department of Homeland Security’s work with state and local fusion centers, the subcommittee writes, “has not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.” Instead, they add, so-called “intelligence”shared between facilities consisted of tidbits of shoddy quality that was often outdated and “sometimes endangering (to) citizen‘s civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.”
“More often than not,” the panel adds, information collected and shared at DHS fusion centers was “unrelated to terrorism.”
In other instances, surveillance is thought to have been conducted on regular civilians not reasonably suspected of any crime, despite a 2008 memo sent to the DHS warning, “You are prohibited from collecting or maintaining information on U.S. persons solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the US Constitution, such as the First Amendment protected freedoms of religion, speech, press, and peaceful assembly and protest.”
By interviewing dozens of current and former federal, state and local officials with fusion center connections and analyzing over a years’ worth of reporting from those facilities, the Senate subcommittee corroborated the results of thousands of pages of financial records and grant awards only to find “problems with nearly every significant aspect of DHS’ involvement with fusion centers.” What’s more, the panel writes, is that even senior officials overseeing the Department’s role with the centers saw that ongoing issues were “hampering effective counterterrorism work,” they by and large ignored — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and insurmountable privacy violations.
The Senate subcommittee estimates that as much as $1.4 billion — and perhaps even more — has been invested by the DHS into the fusion center program, with additional funding coming from other lower-level agencies.
One senior reports office that worked in a DHS Reporting Branch for four years said to the subcommittee that a lot of the data being fed into fusion centers were “clogging the system with no value,” and estimated that as much as 85 percent of the report that left his office “were ‘not
Beneficial’ to any entity, from federal intelligence agencies to state and local fusion centers.”
“I am actually stunned this report got as far as it did,” one reviewer wrote of a suspicious person identified in a fusion center HIR. In that case, a foreigner with an expired visa had been caught speeding, then later shoplifting: his identity was recorded in a database used to list “known or appropriately suspected” terrorists.
“Okay, good start. But the entire total knowledge about the subject . . . is that he tried to steal a pair of shoes from Nieman Marcus,” the reviewer notes. “Everything else in the report is (commentary) . . . I have no idea what value this would be adding to the IC (Intelligence Community).”
Even still, fusion officials continue to collect unrelated information, including a motorcycle gang’s group instructions on how to obey police orders if stopped and, in another instance, intelligence on a U.S. citizen who was advertised as speaking at a day-long lecture on positive parenting before a Muslim organization.
“Of the 386 unclassified HIRs that DHS eventually published over the 13-month period
reviewed by the Subcommittee investigation, a review found close to 300 of them had no
discernable connection to terrorists, terrorist plots or threats,” the report finds.
The Senate subcommittee has published their entire 141-page report online, and asks Congress to clarify the purpose of providing federal funds to DHS fusion centers if such facilities are being run amok with both managerial and fiscal mismanagement.
“The Subcommittee’s investigation could not verify that the statutory basis for DHS’ involvement in fusion centers – to strengthen federal counterterrorism efforts – was reflected in the department’s efforts. Congress should require DHS to conform its efforts to match its counterterrorism statutory purpose, or redefine DHS’ fusion center mission,” the committee writes.