Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., cowrote the report.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., cowrote the report. Charles Dharapak/AP

Homeland Security’s fusion centers lambasted in Senate report

Sens. Levin and Coburn accuse DHS of soft-pedaling flaws in counterterrorism intelligence.

The 72 state and local fusion centers that form a centerpiece of the Homeland Security Department’s domestic anti-terrorism strategy produce intelligence “of uneven quality -- oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, [and] sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections,” stated a Senate report scheduled for release Wednesday.

Despite spending somewhere between $289 million and $1.4 billion on the centers since 2003, DHS has not kept track of expenditures properly and the facilities have “not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts,” the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found. An advance copy of the report was provided to Government Executive.

Indeed, the intelligence reports that the centers provided on suspicious behavior at the local level are “occasionally taken from already published public sources and more often than not unrelated to terrorism,” the report said.

The combined majority and minority report, signed by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said a two-year committee probe Coburn led found that some fusion centers have gone years without a physical presence -- such as a planned facility in Philadelphia -- and without filing any intelligence reports. “Others have operated for years without having DHS personnel on-site to report counterterrorism information, effectively cutting the centers off from the larger DHS terrorism-related intelligence efforts,” said the report, titled “Federal Support and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers.”

“Many of the fusion centers have not made counterterrorism an explicit priority and some have de-emphasized counterterrorism in favor of more traditional public safety and anti-crime work,” the report said. Claims that DHS made “did not always fit the facts and in no case did a fusion center make a clear and unique intelligence contribution that helped apprehend a terrorist or disrupt a plot. Worse, three other incidents examined . . .raised the possibility that some centers have actually hindered or sidetracked federal counterterrorism efforts.” One example cited was the 2011 assassination attempt on former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and bystanders.

The report also faulted DHS for improperly keeping files on citizens, “possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.” And it criticized the department’s two internal assessments of the centers, one in 2010 and the other in 2011, for their secrecy and lack of follow-up on problems identified.

“Much of the blame lies with DHS, which has failed to adequately implement a fusion center program that would produce the results it promised,” the report concluded. “But significant responsibility for these failures also lies with Congress, which has repeatedly chosen to support and praise fusion center efforts, without providing the oversight and direction necessary to make sure those efforts were cost effective and useful.”

The Senate report offered 10 recommendations, among them:

  • Congress should clarify the purpose of federal spending on fusion centers and better track monies;
  • DHS should reform its intelligence reporting between fusion centers and federal agencies;
  • DHS should improve training of intelligence reporters;
  • DHS should better align grants to fusion centers with federal missions;
  • DHS should strengthen its reporting procedures to protect civil liberties; and
  • DHS should keep Congress better informed of problems with the centers.

Homeland Security officials, the report argued, too often inappropriately characterize fusion centers as “successes” and call them the “linchpin” of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, testifying in September 2011 to the Senate panel on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said, “seventy-two recognized fusion centers serve as focal points for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information among the federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial and private sector partners.”

She added, “the intelligence community is able to identify the common threads that can tie a seemingly minor crime to the larger threat picture -- an important step that helps us to identify individuals such as the hijackers, many of whom were apprehended by law enforcement for routine traffic violations prior to 9/11.”