One Bad Apple

What the Tucson shooting teaches us about the dangers of wrong intelligence.

In the hours after a gunman shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in Tucson, Ariz., the information coming from the scene was chaotic and contradictory. News organizations ran with early reports-which proved false-that Giffords had died. One outlet, Fox News, broadcast another troubling report that the Homeland Security Department had linked the alleged gunman, Jared Loughner, to a group believed to have ties to white supremacists.

Essentially every part of that story was wrong. The group in question, American Renaissance, said it was mischaracterized as a supremacist or nationalist group, and it had no record of any contacts with Loughner. The claim of a link, cited by Fox as contained in a DHS memo, also was misstated. The connection actually was made in a document prepared by the Arizona Counterterrorism Information Center, one of the so-called fusion centers that have been set up in various states and cities in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and that are supposed to help coordinate terrorism information with federal, state and local authorities.

It goes without saying that this information is supposed to be accurate, based on verifiable leads and not, as it turns out was the case in Tucson, the speculation of fusion center employees. The fusion center commander, David Denlinger, who's a major with the Arizona State Police, told Politico that the document "was never intended for public dissemination. . . . It was simply two people that put a quick summary together for their bosses in terms of here are some things that are being looked at right now."

And yet the document, or some official description of it, was leaked to the press. It only added to the confusion surrounding the shooting and embroiled Homeland Security once again in the ongoing controversy about whether it's unfairly profiling conservative political groups. Whatever the agenda of American Renaissance, the fusion center in Arizona just didn't have its facts straight.

Uncertainty is the hallmark of any criminal investigation, particularly one taken up in a moment of crisis. But the knock on fusion centers has long been that they try to make connections where there are none, and if their wrong interpretations make their way into the public space, it's hard to retract them. The damage is done. The dots can't be unconnected.

I spent time a few years ago at a fusion center in Los Angeles, and I was astounded by the number of tips and leads-many of them frankly bizarre-that the staff looked at for some connection to terrorism or other violent crime. It was clear then that the fusion center analysts had to be especially careful, because the product of their work was shared among multiple agencies at different levels of government. That increased the chances that erroneous information could leak out, or be misinterpreted by another party.

It might be tempting to dismiss the damage done in the Tuscon case because the erroneous report involves an apparently deranged alleged murderer, and because it was retracted by the government. But this episode should serve as a warning about the dangers of on-the-fly analysis. The report on Loughner should have stayed private, if it ever should have been prepared in the first place.

Presumably, law enforcement authorities in Tucson and from the FBI were on the case when the memo was written. One wonders why the fusion center was involved at all, but clearly, it was operating out of its league.

Shane Harris is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine and a former staff writer for Government Executive. His book The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, is out in paperback.

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