The US Department of Homeland Security has endangered the civil liberties of Americans and spent millions on collecting not counterterrorism intel but “a bunch of crap,” a Senate subcommittee investigation of DHS data fusion centers has found.
The Senate’s bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released on Tuesday their findings of a two-year-long probe that has left lawmakers scratching their heads over an array of mismanagement, multi-million-dollar flubs and direct violations of constitutionally-protected civil liberties taking place at fusion centers: special intelligence-processing facilities that now total 77 across the United States.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress tasked the DHS to begin implementing a coast-to-coast system of highly-connected fusion centers that would allow for greater ease in sharing terrorism-related information between state, local and federal authorities. Under the direction of Chairman Sen. Carl Levin and Ranking Minority Member Sen. Tom Coburn, though, the subcommittee that includes lawmakers from both sides of the aisle concludes that the initiative has all but failed at accomplishing its goals.
The Department of Homeland Security’s work with state and local fusion centers, the subcommittee writes, “has not produced useful intelligence to support federal counterterrorism efforts.” Instead, they add, so-called “intelligence” shared between facilities consisted of tidbits of shoddy quality that was often outdated and “sometimes endangering [to] citizen‘s civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.”
“More often than not,” the panel adds, information collected and shared at DHS fusion centers was “unrelated to terrorism.”
In other instance, surveillance is thought to have been conducted on regular civilians not reasonably suspected of any crime, despite a 2008 memo sent to the DHS warning, “You are prohibited from collecting or maintaining information on US persons solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the US Constitution, such as the First Amendment protected freedoms of religion, speech, press, and peaceful assembly and protest.”
By interviewing dozens of current and former federal, state and local officials with fusion center connections and analyzing over a years’ worth of reporting from those facilities, the Senate subcommittee corroborated the results of thousands of pages of financial records and grant awards only to find “problems with nearly every significant aspect of DHS’ involvement with fusion centers.” What’s more, the panel writes, is that even senior officials overseeing the Department’s role with the centers saw that ongoing issues were “hampering effective counterterrorism work,” they by and large ignored — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and insurmountable privacy violations.
The Senate subcommittee estimates that as much as $1.4 billion — and perhaps even more — has been invested by the DHS into the fusion center program, with additional funding coming from other lower-level agencies. Accountability in how those funds were allocated was sparse, they suggest though, with one particular example from the nation’s capital exposing just the tip of the flawed and fast-melting counter-terrorism iceberg.
In Washington, D.C., the panel notes, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) was awarded $700,000 in grant money from the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), who had in turn had received the money from a government gift by way of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Law enforcement in DC said they needed the money to invest in “Information Technology (Data Mining, Analytical Software),” reports obtained by the Senate reveal, although “no indication that the project was associated with a fusion center” was ever noted, nor did the department outline any specific items that were to be purchased.
Instead of using the fusion center money for the sake of purchasing equipment for said facility, the MPD upgraded their records management system at a cost of $100,000, and more than quarter-of-a-million-dollars was invested in a cell phone tracking system.
“Also of significant,” the report reads, “is that none of the $700,000 in funds was designated for the DC fusion center,” despite the award from FEMA being handed down to help with a project managed by HSEMA, the agency that operates data facilities. “Instead, the sold named recipient was now the DC police department.”
Later on, the report continues, the MPD spent nearly $12,000 on buying two Panasonic laptops and, in lieu of purchasing closed-circuit television download kids expected for surveillance operations pursuant to the fusion center’s intentions, nearly a million dollars in equipment was ordered, yet none was destined for the DC fusion center.
“When DHS and FEMA grant procedures allow grant recipients to change the identified subgrantee, the items to be purchased, the amounts to be spent, and the ultimate use of the purchased equipment, it is clearer why DHS and FEMA are unable to accurately track the taxpayer dollars actually awarded to or used by fusion centers. The loose rules render effective financial oversight of fusion center difficult, if not impossible,” the report continues.
What’s left, however, is having local agencies reap federal funding to invest in their efforts to scale-up their progression into a surveillance state that has almost no accountability.
While gross financial mismanagement is all but expected in a vast, nearly inaudible government agency shrouded with secrecy, the alleged civil liberty violations included in the report are perhaps the most damning discovery, but certainly not the most shocking.
“In 2009, DHS instituted a lengthy privacy and civil liberties review process which kept most of the troubling reports from being released outside of DHS; however, it also slowed reporting down by months, and DHS continued to store troubling intelligence reports from fusion centers on U.S. persons, possibly in violation of the Privacy Act,” the panel writes.
Harold “Skip” Vandover, a former branch chief of a DHS Reporting office, adds to the subcommittee that while intelligence reports at times were informative to counter-terrorism mission, “there were times when it was, ‘what a bunch of crap is coming through.’”
One senior reports office that worked in a DHS Reporting Branch for four years said to the subcommittee that a lot of the data being fed into fusion centers were “clogging the system with no value,” and estimated that as much as 85 percent of the report that left his office “were ‘not
Beneficial’ to any entity, from federal intelligence agencies to state and local fusion centers.” Elsewhere in the report, the subcommittee says they found 574 unclassified draft reports filed by field officers at fusion centers documenting suspected terrorist activity, though only 386 of those reports were ever published and only a fraction showed any link to terrorism.
“In short, the utility of many of the 94 terrorism-related reports was questionable,” the subcommittee says. The panel includes several examples of costly and time-consuming investigations undertaken by fusion centers employees, all which emphasize what appear to be the DHS’ relentless attempts to enter anyone and everyone into a system of suspicious persons.
The subcommittee says that their investigation allowed them to identify dozens of problematic or useless Homeland Intelligence Reports (HIR), federal analyses on suspicious persons circulated between facilities — reports that were “dated, irrelevant, potentially violating civil liberties protections, even drawn from older public accounts.” Despite a lack of useful information and a likely possibility of civil liberties crimes, though, “The DHS officials who filed useless, problematic or even potentially illegal reports generally faced no sanction for their actions, according to documents and interview.”
“I am actually stunned this report got as far as it did,” one reviewer wrote of a suspicious person identified in a fusion center HIR. In that case, a foreigner with an expired visa had been caught speeding, then later shoplifting: his identity was recorded in a database used to list “known or appropriately suspected” terrorists.
“Okay, good start. But the entire total knowledge about the subject . . . is that he tried to steal a pair of shoes from Nieman Marcus,” the reviewer notes. “Everything else in the report is [commentary] . . . I have no idea what value this would be adding to the IC [Intelligence Community].”
Even still, fusion officials continue to collect unrelated information, including a motorcycle gang’s group instructions on how to obey police orders if stopped and, in another instance, intelligence on a US citizen who was advertised as speaking at a day-long lecture on positive parenting before a Muslim organization.
“Of the 386 unclassified HIRs that DHS eventually published over the 13-month period
reviewed by the Subcommittee investigation, a review found close to 300 of them had no
discernable connection to terrorists, terrorist plots or threats,” the report finds.
When even the most senior of DHS staffers were aware of mismanagement, the report reads, “problems went unaddressed for months – sometimes years – and were largely unknown outside of the Department. Officials chose not to inform Congress or the public of the seriousness of these problems during that time, nor were they uncovered by any outside review until this investigation.”
Matthew Chandler, a spokesperson for the DHS, tells The Los Angeles Times that the Senate subcommittee’s report is the result of a “fundamentally flawed” investigation that has spawned an” out of date, inaccurate and misleading” analysis.
“In preparing the report, the committee refused to review relevant data, including important intelligence information pertinent to their findings," Chandler adds to Fox News. "The report fundamentally misunderstands the role of the federal government in supporting fusion centers and overlooks the significant benefits of this relationship to both state and local law enforcement and the federal government."
The Senate subcommittee has published their entire 141-page report online, and asks Congress to clarify the purpose of providing federal funds to DHS fusion centers if such facilities are being run amuck with both managerial and fiscal mismanagement.
“The Subcommittee’s investigation could not verify that the statutory basis for DHS’ involvement in fusion centers – to strengthen federal counterterrorism efforts – was reflected in the department’s efforts. Congress should require DHS to conform its efforts to match its counterterrorism statutory purpose, or redefine DHS’ fusion center mission,” the committee writes.