Report finds that while the centers may lead to civil liberties violations, they don’t do much to catch terrorists
In a new 146-page report released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation, a bipartisan panel of senators calls into question the U.S. Department of Homeland Security‘s (DHS) claims that so-called “Fusion” data centers have successfully been employed to stop terrorists.I. Surprise! The Fed. Government Wasted Taxpayer Money on Abusive Scheme
While the DHS claimed that the centers were used to stop the Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to bomb the New York subway, the Senate “could identify nothing that uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution any fusion center made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”
Contrast that with what DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a 2010 speech in which she commented, “It was a fusion center near Denver that played the key role in ‘fusing’ the information that came from the public with evidence that came in following the [subway plot] suspect’s arrest by the FBI.”
The Senate committee said that the 2009 plot and others — like a 2010 effort to place a car bomb in Times Square — were not cracked by the Fusion centers at all. The officers involved in the cases would have done the exact same thing they did to crack those cases, with or without the data center. For example, in the subway plot, the Colorado state troopers who solved the cases were working with their state’s data center, but their detective work to discover and stop the plot came from the agency they were primarily reporting to — the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The Senate concludes that when all the privileged details of the investigations were considered, there was no sign that the pricey data centers were successful at fighting any known terrorist plot.
So what did the data centers accomplish? According to the panel the legacy is mostly negative. They claim the Fusion centers — whose objective is ostensibly to share national intelligence with state/local law enforcement and analyze potential terrorist threats — in the end mostly ended up violating U.S. citizens’ civil liberties.
Writes the panel, “[DHS liaisons] forwarded ‘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.”
One example of such a shoddy effort is in the case of the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center’s recent claims that a Russian hacker had stolen sensitive usernames and passwords from a state utility. Those claims would haunt an IT worker from the utility, who had merely been doing his employer’s bidding by remotely (and securely) managing systems while abroad on vacation.
Because of the poor detective work, it took some time for authorities to realize the devious “hacker” was merely a figment of agents’ overactive imaginations. And in the meantime the employee faced unwelcome scrutiny, for basically doing his job.
II. Trading Freedom for Security
It’s a story that Americans have grown all too accustomed to in the post-9/11 “police state” era: unwilling to be troubled with solid detective work, and with a wealth of new abusable privileges, citizens’ civil liberties are trampled even as the government does little to ensure their safety.
Worst of all, the Senators were unable to even able to figure out how much was spent on the data centers, only able to ascertain it was between $289M to $1.4B USD in taxpayer money arguably down the drain.
Of course the bipartisan panel can only wave the finger at Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama who signed the funding bills and Fusion center plans into law. After, all it was the House and Senate who passed the funding and authorizations that called for the centers in the first place.
Some defend the Fusion centers. For example the Los Angeles Police Department‘s (LAPD) counterterrorism chief, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, told the Los Angeles Times that despite a lot of “white noise”, “There are occasionally gold nuggets.”
Unsurprisingly DHS spokesman Michael Chandler also labeled the investigation as “fundamentally flawed”, commenting, “The committee report on federal support for fusion centers is out of date, inaccurate and misleading.
Whether or not the centers were as useless as the Senators’ report claims, the report does make clear the key problem was that the centers were tasking state/local law enforcement agents with investigation responsibilities that they were incapable of handling, rather than leaving their use up to the various sophisticated federal law enforcement agencies that know how to best make use of those mid-level skilled resources. The results ranged from mistakes to potential abuse.
Thus the U.S. is left to grapple once again with the question of whether its politicians are playing a game of Security Theater.
For those interested, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation members include:
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI)
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-DE)
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-LA)
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK)
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-ME)
Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA)
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)