A new congressional investigation reveals that the nation’s vast network of anti-terrorism ”fusion centers,” set up in recent years by the federal government to join local, state and federal investigative efforts to prevent terrorism, probably have violated Americans’ privacy, have issued reports that were outdated by the time they were released and have wasted taxpayer money on expenses such as SUVs, which were later given away.
The new report is being highlighted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which long has monitored the work of the fusion centers.
The units have made headlines several times in recent months, including when one, the Missouri Information Analysis Center, issued a report that linked conservative groups to domestic terrorism and warned law enforcement to watch for vehicles with bumper stickers promoting Ron Paul and Chuck Baldwin. It also warned police to watch out for individuals with “radical” ideologies based on Christian views, such as opposing illegal immigration, abortion and federal taxes.
Ultimately, Chief James Keathley of the Missouri State Patrol said the release of the report caused him to review the procedures through which the report was released.
“My review of the procedures used by the MIAC in the three years since its inception indicates that the mechanism in place for oversight of reports needs improvement,” he said at the time. “Until two weeks ago, the process for release of reports from the MIAC to law enforcement officers around the state required no review by leaders of the Missouri State Highway Patrol or the Department of Public Safety.”
He said the report warning about those who hold Christian views was “created by a MIAC employee, reviewed by the MIAC director, and sent immediately to law enforcement agencies across Missouri.”
In a second high-profile situation, a Colorado center confirmed that federal agents were distributing brochures to farm supply stories, gun shops, military surplus stores and even hotels and motels. The agents asked proprietors, clerks and others to watch out for “potential indicators” of terrorism, including “paying with cash,” having a “missing hand/fingers,” making “extreme religious statements coupled with comments that are violent or appear to condone violence” and making bulk purchases of “Meals Ready to Eat” or “night flashlights.”
EPIC said the new report found that fusion centers, run by the Department of Homeland Security, “often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence” and stored records on Americans “possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.”
The report comes from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the U.S. Senate and is titled “Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers.”
It was released by Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking minority member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
It said the goal of the fusion centers, which have cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, was to share terrorism-related information to try to prevent future terror attacks.
However, the effort “has not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts,” the report said.
“The subcommittee investigation found that DHS-assigned detailees to the fusion centers 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.”
The report further said the members of Congress found “that DHS officials’ public claims about fusion centers were not always accurate.”
The report said more than 70 of the fusion centers have been created or expanded at the expense of American taxpayers, since 2003.
“Despite reviewing 13 months’ worth of reporting originating from fusion centers from April 1, 2009, to April 30, 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,” the Senate report said.
What was discovered, the report said, was that:
- Nearly one-third of all reports, 188 of 610, never were published for use, often because they “lacked any useful information” or they violated privacy rights of Americans.
- An effort to address privacy procedures and concerns “slowed reporting down by months, and DHS continued to store troubling intelligence reports … possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.”
- There was a “significant backlog.” “At some points, hundreds of draft intelligence reports sat for months before DHS officials made a decision about whether to release them to the intelligence community.” Some were “obsolete” by the time they were released.
- Most reporting addressed crime, such as drug smuggling, but “was not about terrorists or possible terrorist plots.”
- Some of the “intelligence” was based on no more than “older news releases or media accounts.”
The Senate report also noted some of the failures uncovered, including a decision to dispatch agents to offices with only a week of training on intelligence issues, and those who wrote “useless or potentially illegal fusion center intelligence reports faced no sanction.”
The estimate, because exact figures could not be produced by DHS, suggested up to $1.4 billion in tax money has been allocated to the projects.
But some purchases did include “dozens of flat-screen TVs” as well as “sport utility vehicles they then gave away to other local agencies.”
Also purchased were hidden “shirt button” cameras and cell phone tracking devices –even though they were unusable for the mission of the centers – to analyze information relating to terrorism.
Further, the report revealed that information in the DHS fusion center system would go through a four-office review process and spend “weeks or months” before being released.
“However, as the subcommittee learned from DHS’ senior representative at NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center], the very same data in those reports likely made it to the center within a day of the incident via an FBI-run process.”
The errors associated with the centers were alarming. The report documented a 2011 report from the Illinois Statewide Terrorism & Intelligence fusion center about a Russian hacker who broke into a sensitive utility control system and used that information to send commands to a water district’s control system and burn out a water pump.
“In truth, there was no intrusion, and DHS investigators eventually concluded as much. The so-called ‘intrusion’ from Russia was actually an incident of legitimate remote computer access by a U.S. network technician who was working while on a family vacation. … The contractor had logged on from Russia in June, five months before the pump broke; and although the access had been under his username and password, no one from the fusion center, the water utility or DHS had contacted him to find out if he had logged on from Russia.”
The report cites the Missouri fiasco.
The Missouri report “was poorly researched and written. It attempted to show connections between certain constitutionally protected, non-violent political activity and a tendency toward violent extremism,” the congressional report said.
The investigation found the Missouri report “caused an avalanche of criticism.”
“One former state government official said the report ‘looks like a Missouri State University fraternity brother wrote something and put it on state letterhead,” the congressional report said.
“Unfortunately, despite a significant investment of resources and time, fusion centers today appear to be largely ineffective participants in the federal counterterrorism mission. Much of the blame lies with DHS, which has failed to adequately implement a fusion center program that would produce the results it promised.”
Should federal officials want results in the counterterrorism fight, DHS should consider how to protect the civil liberties of Americans, keep track of funding, monitor performance and results and train its employees, the report said.
DHS also recently announced its “Operations Collection, Planning, Coordination, Reporting, Analysis and Fusion System of Records,” which includes “electronic and paper records,” was being exempted from requirements for public access.
DHS said the exemption is “justified” because releasing information could “alert the subject of an investigation of an actual or potential criminal, civil, or regulatory violation to the existence of that investigation and reveal investigative interest on the part of DHS.”
In a statement submitted to DHS during its rule-adoption process, EPIC noted that the information DHS “seeks to incorporate into this system of records” includes name, date and place of birth, Society Security number, citizenship, contact information, address, physical description, distinguishing marks, automobile registration information, watch list information, medical records, financial information, results of intelligence analysis and reporting, ongoing law enforcement investigative information, historical law enforcement information, information systems security analysis and reporting, public source data, intelligence information including links to terrorism or law enforcement, information from federal and other agencies, other information provided by “individuals” and other categories of data.
Moreover, EPIC documents that the federal agency declares its own permission to share information with “both public and private parties,” ranging from the Department of Justice and any congressional office to any “agency … for the purpose of performing audit or oversight operations,” as well as contractors, state and local agencies, foreign government intelligence agencies and even the news media.
The concept “contravenes the purpose and intent of the Federal Privacy Act,” EPIC wrote. “When it enacted the Privacy Act in 1974, Congress sought to restrict the amount of personal data that federal agencies could collect and requires government agencies to limit the collection, sharing, and use of individuals’ personal information.”