Congressional Investigation Slams DHS Anti-Terror Centers: Wasted Taxpayer Funds, Created No Useful Intelligence & Violated Civil Liberties
from the have-we-done-anything-useful? dept
Since September 11th, the government has often had something of a blank check (and the equivalent lack of oversight) for anything labeled as being part of an anti-terror effort. As such, it should hardly come as a surprise that programs are wasteful, possibly fraudulent, bad for civil liberties and (oh yeah) completely useless (to actively harmful) in fighting terrorism. A Congressional investigation into the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) “fusion centers,” which were supposed to be a key force in anti-terrorism efforts, presents an absolutely scathing condemnation of the effort.
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 Subcommittee investigation also found that DHS officials’ public claims about fusion centers were not always accurate. For instance, DHS officials asserted that some fusion centers existed when they did not. At times, DHS officials overstated fusion centers’ “success stories.” At other times, DHS officials failed to disclose or acknowledge non-public evaluations highlighting a host of problems at fusion centers and in DHS’ own operations.
Oh, and did we mention how wasteful they were? Apparently, taxpayer money simply “disappeared” into the program often being spent on totally unrelated things like flat screen TVs:
The Subcommittee investigation also reviewed how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a component of DHS, distributed hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to support state and local fusion centers. DHS revealed that it was unable to provide an accurate tally of how much it had granted to states and cities to support fusion centers efforts, instead producing broad estimates of the total amount of federal dollars spent on fusion center activities from 2003 to 2011, estimates which ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion. The Subcommittee investigation also found that DHS failed to adequately police how states and municipalities used the money intended for fusion centers. The investigation found that DHS did not know with any accuracy how much grant money it has spent on specific fusion centers, nor could it say how most of those grant funds were spent, nor has it examined the effectiveness of those grant dollars. The Subcommittee conducted a more detailed case study review of expenditures of DHS grant funds at five fusion centers, all of which lacked basic, “must-have” intelligence capabilities, according to assessments conducted by and for DHS. The Subcommittee investigation found that the state and local agencies used some of the federal grant money to purchase: dozens of flat-screen TVs; Sport Utility Vehicles they then gave away to other local agencies; and hidden “shirt button” cameras, cell phone tracking devices, and other surveillance equipment unrelated to the analytical mission of a fusion center.
Of course, this kind of thing isn’t all that uncommon. I remember a story from nearly a decade ago about all the money designated for things like E911 services, instead being used to pay for boots and pens. We recently wrote about the failure of a NY City program to spy on Muslims to turn up a single lead, but this takes that kind of failure to a whole new level.
Of course, the scary part in all this isn’t just the misuse of funds or the failure to produce anything relevant. It’s that what was done almost certainly violated the public’s rights. And apparently, such violations of civil liberties were a very common problem.
The inappropriate reporting appears to have been a regular problem. An April 2009 email from an alarmed senior I&A official stated: “[State and Local Fusion Center officials] are collecting open-source intelligence (OSINT) on U.S. persons (USPER), without proper vetting, and improperly reporting this information through homeland information reporting (HIR) channels,” wrote Barbara Alexander, then director of the Collection and Requirements Division, which oversaw HIR reporting. “The improper reporting of this information through HIR channels is likely a result of a lack of training on proper collection and reporting procedures . . . they are inadvertently causing problems.” In an interview with the Subcommittee, Ms. Alexander said she recalled being told the Reporting Branch was “flooded” with inappropriate reporting. “A lot of information was coming in inappropriately,” she remembered. “The information was not reportable.”
[….] Ms. Schlanger’s presentation, a copy of which DHS provided to the Subcommittee, indicated that areas in which DHS intelligence reporters had overstepped legal boundaries included: Reporting on First Amendment-protected activities lacking a nexus to violence or criminality; reporting on or improperly characterizing political, religious or ideological speech that is not explicitly violent or criminal; and attributing to an entire group the violent or criminal acts of one or a limited number of the group’s members.
The investigation goes on to quote numerous examples of “reports” prepared on information that DHS is not allowed to report on as it violates civil liberties.
In the end, as with so many “anti-terror” programs, what we have is a program that took in a ton of taxpayer funds, with almost no oversight as to what happened to those funds (leading to $1.4 billion disappearing), no intelligence of any use but undertook plenty of efforts that were clearly beyond the mandate of Homeland Security. And all of this is supposed to make us feel safer?