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'Fusion Center' big brothers produce little in war against terrorism

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Photo - In this photo taken on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, Dana Reynolds, Director of Colorado Information Analysis Center, talks on a radio in the center in Lakewood, Colo. The center processes bits and pieces of information sent by police across the state that normally don't make sense individually. It's one of 50 state centers__plus 20 regional center across the country__that collects such tips and intelligence after the 9/11 attacks. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
In this photo taken on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, Dana Reynolds, Director of Colorado Information Analysis Center, talks on a radio in the center in Lakewood, Colo. The center processes bits and pieces of information sent by police across the state that normally don't make sense individually. It's one of 50 state centers__plus 20 regional center across the country__that collects such tips and intelligence after the 9/11 attacks. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)
News,Watchdog,Homeland Security

On the heels of a scathing U.S. Senate investigation, 77 federally funded anti-terrorist centers are being branded "pools of ineptitude." And they are costly pools to boot.

In a book scheduled for release on June 25, Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead writes:

"Virtually every state has a 'fusion center' monitoring everything from Internet activity and web searches to text messages, phone calls and emails. This data is then fed to government agencies, which are now interconnected: the CIA to the FBI, the FBI to local police."

Whitehead, a Charlottesville, Va.-based civil libertarian and lawyer, is a leading opponent of aerial drones and government’s ever-expanding surveillance apparatus. His book — “A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State” – identifies the vertically integrated fusion centers as both a danger to citizens and their wallets.

In exclusive excerpts reviewed by Watchdog.org, Whitehead warns:

“Too often, the partnership between law-enforcement officials and fusion centers gives rise to procedures lacking in transparency and which skate alarmingly close to the edge of constitutional prohibitions against unreasonable searches, when they’re not flouting them altogether.

Equally problematic is the fact that there is no nationally recognized structure for a fusion center, so each fusion center essentially establishes its own protocol, a shortcoming acknowledged by the Department of Homeland Security.”

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations uncovered widespread problems at fusion centers. The panel’s October 2012 report said the centers, which began opening in 2003, were intended to detect and thwart domestic terrorist threats.

But the 142-page report found significant intelligence gaps, frequent communications breakdowns and pervasive bureaucratic waste.

After reviewing 13 months of reporting originating from fusion centers in 2009 and 2010, the subcommittee investigation could identify “no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”

Instead, investigators found:

  • Fusion centers “often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever.”
  • Nearly a third of all reports – 188 out of 610 – were never published for use within DHS and by other members of the intelligence community, “often because they lacked any useful information, or potentially violated department guidelines meant to protect Americans’ civil liberties or Privacy Act protections.”
  • “Most (fusion center) reporting was not about terrorists or possible terrorist plots, but about criminal activity, largely arrest reports pertaining to drug, cash or human smuggling.” Some terrorism-related “intelligence” data was just plain derivative — based on old news releases or press clippings.

And how much are U.S. taxpayers paying for what the subcommittee branded “oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely” information? That’s a state secret.

The DHS keeps the fusion centers’ budget under wraps, much like the Pentagon and CIA conceal their “black ops” spending. The total number of fusion center employees is not publicly known.

Siphoning funds earmarked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (another department under the DHS umbrella), fusion centers are conservatively estimated to cost American taxpayers between $800 million and $1.4 billion annually. States pitch in millions more.

“Pools of ineptitude and waste,” investigative journalist Robert O’Harrow says in Whitehead’s book.

The Senate subcommittee detailed how a lack of oversight by DHS has spawned “wasteful spending of hundreds of millions of dollars” on items ranging from $6,000 laptop computers to $45,000 SUVs used for commuting.

“A Government of Wolves” recounts that some DHS personnel at fusion centers received fewer than five days of training in intelligence gathering.

“Despite this, they were being paid upwards of $80,000 a year,” Whitehead says.

“This lack of adequate training may help explain why innocent, constitutionally protected activities have been flagged as potentially terrorist in nature. For example, one intelligence report warned against a ‘Russian cyberattack,’ which turned out to be nothing more than an American employee accessing a work computer remotely.”

As government snooping expands — in Utah, the National Security Agency is building a $2 billion data collection center that’s five times bigger than the U.S. Capitol — Whitehead sees private companies jumping aboard.

“Boeing, the country’s largest aircraft manufacturer and second-largest defense contractor, has pushed to take part in intelligence gathering, going so far as to try placing one of their representatives at the Washington Joint Analytical Center, a massive fusion center in Washington State,” Whitehead writes.

“Starbucks, Alaska Airlines and Amazon have also expressed interest in working with the WAJAC.”

Meantime, the Domestic Security Alliance Council, a public-private intelligence-sharing partnership, is led by the DHS, FBI and 29 corporations, including several targeted by Occupy Wall Street protesters.

A companion initiative, the DHS Private Sector Information-Sharing Working Plan, lobbies for more resources to fusion centers while another group, the National Fusion Center Association, solicits corporate sponsorships.

The Arlington, Va.-based NFCA says its goal is to “provide an independent and consolidated voice for state and major urban area fusion centers.”

President Mike Sena, writing on NFCA’s website, praised the work of the fusion centers in investigating the Boston Marathon bombing.

But as Watchdog reported, the run-up to the deadly attack was marred by poor communication between local and federal officials — even though Massachusetts maintains one of the most well-established fusion centers in the nation.

NFCA did not respond to Watchdog’s request for comment.

Senate investigators concluded that “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.”

But the report predicted that extra-legal mischief and bureaucratic inefficiency will persist as long as accountability remains loose.

“Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on state and local fusion centers, DHS has not attempted to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the value federal taxpayers have received for that investment.”

Kenric Ward is a reporter for Watchdog.org, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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