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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.