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Report rakes DHS fusion centers as budget drain with no oversight

Fusion center

Lack of oversight of the 70 DHS information fusion centers around the country has produced a huge, unmonitored drag on the national budget that produces sometimes slapdash intelligence, according to a new report released by a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on Oct. 3.

The report, the result of what congressional sponsors said was a two year bipartisan investigation by the U. S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, found DHS efforts to engage state and local intelligence fusion centers hasn’t yielded significant useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts. It also said some of the intelligence produced by the centers was “shoddy,” “uneven,” and possibly violated citizens’ civil rights.

“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 a joint statement by Sen.Tom Coburn, (R-OK), the subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation and subcommittee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI).

The investigation, said Coburn, found senior DHS officials were aware of the problems hampering effective counterterrorism work with the fusion centers, but didn’t always inform Congress of the issues, or ensure the problems were fixed in a timely manner.

“Unfortunately, DHS has resisted oversight of these centers,” said Coburn. “The Department opted not to inform Congress or the public of serious problems plaguing its fusion center and broader intelligence efforts,” he said. DHS, he added, resisted turning over documents that could have helped stem the problems, arguing they were protected by privilege or confidentiality agreements, or didn’t exist at all. 

“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,” said Levin.  “This investigation focused on the federal return from investing in state and local fusion centers, using the counterterrorism objectives established by law and DHS.  The report recommends that Congress clarify the purpose of fusion centers and link their funding to their performance.”

According to Levin and Coburn, DHS estimates it has spent between $289 million and $1.4 billion in public funds to support state and local fusion centers since 2003, a gap of over $1 billion. 

The investigation also found:

  • DHS intelligence officers assigned to state and local fusion centers produced intelligence 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.”
  • DHS officials didn’t provide evidence to the Subcommittee showing unique contributions that state and local fusion centers made to assist federal counter terrorism intelligence efforts that resulted in the disruption or prevention of a terrorism plot.
  • DHS didn’t effectively monitor how federal funds provided to state and local fusion centers were used to strengthen federal counterterrorism efforts.  A review of the expenditures of five fusion centers found that federal funds were used to purchase dozens of flat screen TVs, two sport utility vehicles, cell phone tracking devices and other surveillance equipment unrelated to the analytical mission of an intelligence center.  Their mission is not to do active or covert collection of intelligence.  In addition, the fusion centers making these questionable expenditures lacked basic, “must-have” intelligence capabilities, according to DHS assessments.

 “With a $16 trillion national debt and $1 trillion annual deficit, Congress has a duty to the American people to ensure that every dollar we are spending – particularly those spent on national priorities like counterterrorism – is spent wisely and effectively,” Coburn said.  “This bipartisan investigation shows that Congress needs to ensure it is getting value for the millions of taxpayer dollars invested in fusion centers.”

 

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