Even in horrendous economic times, governments never seem averse to spending billions of dollars more than necessary to address a problem.
In this case, the United States over the past decade has spent untold billions — literally untold: Homeland Security officials don’t know how much they’ve spent in this area — to set up state fusion centers to share information and combat terrorism.
The problem? A bipartisan Senate Homeland Security committee has looked at the work that has been done and found that while spending has be plentiful, actual intelligence gathered on terrorism has been scarce. And when terrorism-related information has been addressed by the fusion centers, it has sometimes infringed on civil rights.
Federal funding for the fusion centers is believed to be 20-30 percent of the cost of running the programs, and the federal government estimates that as little as $300 million or maybe as much as $1.4 billion has been spent, along with state and local funding.
The Senate committee’s year-long review of more than 600 unclassified documents generated by the fusion centers was, at best, unflattering.
“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 report said.
It did find, however, that a great deal of money was spent on software for mining data, such as getting information out of supporters of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the ACLU, pro-abortionists, anti-abortionists, war protesters and advocates of gun rights. That controversial sign that Albany businessman Richard Thomas put up at his Dawson Road business with the picture purporting to be Navy SEALs on it? Our guess is it’s in there, too.
The Associated Press reported that one of the centers stored information on a Muslim group’s book recommendations, while other files listed American citizens speaking at mosques or talking to Muslim groups about parenting. If there had been an indication that criminal activity was afoot, that would have been appropriate, but there were no such assertions. That means the centers were violating a prohibition of the federal government storing information about First Amendment activities that are not related to crimes.
Who’s fault is all of this? It’s where it always goes — Congress and the administration.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, America got into high gear on counterterrorism efforts and, with the 9/11 Commission noting the lousy communications between various agencies, established the fusion centers in each state, which meant spending money on secure equipment and facilities, training and background checks. Congress ordered intelligence agencies to hire more analysts. From 2003 until 2007, the centers operated without federal instructions, and in 2007 Congress expanded the scope to include criminal activity. In the last five years, terrorism has been a smaller and smaller focus, with the committee noting that the centers “didn’t consider counterterrorism an explicit part of their mission, and federal officials said some were simply not concerned with doing counterterrorism work.”
The result — the centers, created for the purpose of fighting terrorism are instead focusing on crime and issues not related to terrorism investigation and analyst work, which is now being done by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
Congress needs to take a look at the money it is spending on these fusion centers and determine whether that is the best use of the funds, or whether the federal funds need to be spent at all. If Congress wants to establish domestic law enforcement centers and fund them, it should be clear in what their job is and make sure that First Amendment and other rights are not violated.