Report Slams Counterterrorism 'Fusion Centers'

After a two-year investigation, a Senate report released Wednesday criticizes the Department of Homeland Security's "fusion centers" as ineffective, expensive, and encroaching on civil liberties. The centers were created after Sept. 11 to improve communication between federal counter-terrorism agents and state and local law enforcement. A department spokesman called the report flawed.

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A scathing new report says a centerpiece of the nation's counterterrorism strategy is ineffective, expensive and encroaching on people's civil liberties. The two-year investigation by a Senate panel raises doubts about what are called fusion centers. They were set up after 9/11 to share information among federal, state and local law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security, which finances the centers, says the report is flawed. NPR's Carrie Johnson has our story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, who launched the bipartisan Senate investigation, says fusion centers were supposed to be part of the solution after 9/11. Instead, Coburn says, they've become part of the problem.

SENATOR TOM COBURN: We've not had one piece of actionable intelligence in nine years out of a fusion center. And we've spent probably in excess of $1.4 billion on it.

JOHNSON: The report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation said the Department of Homeland Security, which pays for the centers using federal grants, doesn't safeguard how taxpayer money is being spent. Senator Coburn.

COBURN: And Homeland Security was aware of the problems. They did not report it to Congress, and they also didn't fix the problems.

JOHNSON: Lawmakers said they couldn't pinpoint exactly how much money was wasted. Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center says the government does have some real responsibilities to protect public safety, but, he says...

MARC ROTENBERG: You have to be able to measure whether this is a sensible way to protect homeland security and to identify national security threats.

JOHNSON: Here's what the report did measure. In San Diego, a fusion center used federal dollars to buy 55 flat-screen TVs to, quote, "watch the news." Another center bought Chevy Tahoe sport utility vehicles. Matt Chandler, a spokesman for DHS, sent a written statement, saying the report is, quote, "out of date, inaccurate and misleading." He said the Senate panel relied on information from a few years ago and he said many of those defects already have been corrected.

Senate investigators said the centers do play a useful role in fighting crimes like drug trafficking. But they pointed out the main justification for funding the effort is counterterrorism, which the FBI already does. To civil liberties experts like Mike German of the American Civil Liberties Union, the report confirms some long-standing suspicions.

MIKE GERMAN: When you have a system that's running behind a veil of secrecy, you can expect there's going to be a lot of waste, fraud and abuse. And that's exactly what we've found here.

JOHNSON: Senate investigators said DHS reports had violated the privacy of innocent Americans, including members of the ACLU, people who protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Muslims who shared reading lists and parenting tips. Mike Sena, who runs a fusion center in California, called me from his cell phone today. Sena said state and local police still need a place...

MIKE SENA: ...to share resources, share assets and to basically provide a better network of prevention and protection across our country, and that's really the core of why fusion centers are needed.

JOHNSON: Privacy groups had a different takeaway. They're calling on Congress to hold oversight hearings.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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