A two-year bipartisan Senate investigation found that Department of Homeland Security efforts to engage state and local intelligence “fusion centers” in doemstic surveillance has not yielded significant useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts. Some 77 such fusion centers have been set up in the nation, including a half dozen in Florida. Fusion centers have become such a prevalent part of federal and state bureaucracies that they’ve generated their own national association.
“It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican and the subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation.
The 141-page investigation, conducted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations and released today, determined that senior Homeland Security officials were aware of the problems hampering effective counterterrorism work with the fusion centers, but did not always inform Congress of the issues, nor ensure the problems were fixed in a timely manner.
The Department of Homeland Security condemned the report, calling its data outdated, though the investigation focused on 2009 and 2010 and examined activities across all nine years of the surveillance centers’ operations.
The Central Florida Intelligence Exchange
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has its own surveillance center–called “Florida Fusion”–which it proudly describes as a “multidisciplinary approach” that “increases the awareness of potential threats and enhances what has traditionally been a law enforcement mission,” drawing on “many agencies making valuable contributions to the mission of public safety, including the public and private sector communities.”
In 2007, FDLE opened a Central Florida surveillance center, or the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange (CFIX), in Orlando, calling it “one of the few regional agencies of its kind in the United States.” It includes Volusia County but not Flagler in its jurisdiction. There were at least six such fusion centers in the state in 2011. But details about the centers have been few, as has proof that they have been either effective or necessary.
The FDLE last September described its Fusion Center as “a 24-hour watch desk.” But CFIX has been involved in a series of questionable actions. On June 4, 2010, for example, it circulated a “situational awareness” bulletin that had nothing to do with homeland security, but rather denoted the times and places of protests organized during “Seize BP Week of Action,” by people demonstrating against the oil company in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “The purpose of the protests is to convince the United States government to seize BP’s assets and to ‘ensure justice’ for all of the devastation that has been caused in the Gulf of Mexico from the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon,” the bulletin stated before listing the five protest locations. “There are no known threats to these events; however, unforeseen incidents may occur,” the bulletin stated, without specifying further.
A week later, in another situational bulletin circulated by the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange, the controversial and deadly seizure of a Turkish humanitarian boat heading for Gaza that had taken place two days earlier was summarized (Israeli troops killed 10 people aboard the boat). And it concluded: “The Central Florida Intelligence Exchange (CFIX) has no specific information regarding organized protests in Region 5 at this time; however, pasts incidents between Israel and Gaza have resulted in protests being held throughout the state. If you have or receive any information regarding events in your jurisdiction, please contact CFIX at (407) 858-3950.” Yet another bulletin pointed out the spread of synthetic marijuana, the drug the Palm Coast City Council just prohibited from sale in the city’s shops.
Flagging Ron Paul and Islamic Centers
And a six-page weekly report by the Central Florida exchange, published on Aug. 6, 2010 with a prohibition against public release (“Public and media release is not authorized” is imprinted on the the front page of the report, which is available in full here), lists a series of political, religious and social events that posed no danger, but provided a window into the CFIX’s surveillance and potentially discriminating radars. One event was a summit by the organization led by Ron Paul’s Capaign for Liberty. Another was the expansion of two Islamic centers in Sanford. A third was the expedition of the Greenpeace ship “Arctic Sunride” in the Gulf of Mexico, to protest the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The report goes on to note numerous other issues beyond Florida, underscoring the breadth and reach of the Central Florida fusion center well beyond the state.
The report follows a pattern across the nation. Homeland Security analyst at a Wisconsin fusion center prepared a report about protesters on both sides of the abortion debate, for example, despite the fact that no violence was expected.”These bulletins, which are widely distributed, would be laughable except that they come with the imprimatur of a federally backed intelligence operation, and they encourage law enforcement officers to monitor the activities of political activists and racial and religious minorities,” the ACLU said.
In December 2010, the ACLU itself, in Tennessee, found itself on a terrorism watch list by a fusion center in that state. Tennessee’s fusion center placed the ACLU on an Internet map detailing “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” after the group warned schools to ensure holiday celebrations “are inclusive,” according to a published report.
The Department of Homeland Security spends a lot of time congratulating its fusion centers, the senate investigation found, but with little reason to do so. A Florida case is illustrative: Homeland Security singles out the FDLE’s fusion center for its work in the case of Faisal Shahzad case. “DHS does not characterize the FFC’s work as making a significant contribution to the case,” the investigation found. “Following the May 3 arrest of Faisal Shahzad, [Florida Fusion Center] personnel ‘immediately began to query state databases seeking any association with Shahzad,’ according to FFC Director Robert LeFiles. The center identified two individuals having possible associations with Mr. Shahzad, and passed the information to the FBI JTTF [or Joint Terrorism Task Forces] pursuing the case. The information was used in a finished intelligence product, but nothing further was reported by either FFC or DHS about the leads. The information does not appear to have played any key role in the Shahzad case.”
Fusion centers, the report concluides, “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. But significant responsibility for these failures also lies with Congress, which has repeatedly chosen to support and praise fusion center efforts, without providing the oversight and direction necessary to make sure those efforts were cost effective and useful.”
“Unfortunately, DHS has resisted oversight of these centers. The Department opted not to inform Congress or the public of serious problems plaguing its fusion center and broader intelligence efforts,” Coburn said. “When this Subcommittee requested documents that would help it identify these issues, the Department initially resisted turning them over, arguing that they were protected by privilege, too sensitive to share, were protected by confidentiality agreements, or did not exist at all. The American people deserve better. I hope this report will help generate the reforms that will help keep our country safe.”
The American Civil Liberties Union today (Oct. 3), which has been sharply critical of fusion centers because of their potential intrusions on citizens’ privacy and their lack of oversight, immediately on Wednesday called on Congress to hold hearings to investigate what it called “rampant civil liberties violations in those centers funded by the Department of Homeland Security.”
“We hope that continuing oversight and stronger regulation will prohibit law enforcement intelligence collection without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” said Michael German, senior policy counsel in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. “The ACLU warned back in 2007 that fusion centers posed grave threats to Americans’ privacy and civil liberties, and that they needed clear guidelines and independent oversight. This report is a good first step, and we call upon Congress to hold public hearings to investigate fusion centers and their ongoing abuses.”
The ACLU’s Warnings
Starting in 2007, the ACLU issued reports warning that the lack of public oversight regarding the centers and their work put Americans’ privacy at risk.
“Law enforcement has long abused its perceived intelligence authorities to spy on people because of their beliefs and political activities rather than evidence of wrongdoing, and the subcommittee report confirms that this problem continues today,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s national security project. “History has shown that police powers exercised in secret are often abused, and the ACLU previously identified excessive secrecy surrounding the development of fusion centers as one of the primary threats to civil liberties. These centers need to be accountable to federal, state and local governments, and, most importantly, to the public they serve.”
The ACLU is currently litigating a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking documents about a federal program to share information with the fusion centers called eGuardian, which is the FBI’s nationwide system of collecting and sharing so-called “Suspicious Activity Reports” from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
In its own investigation, seemingly vindicated by the Sentae investigation, the ACLU found the following issues with fusion centers:
- Ambiguous Lines of Authority. In a multi-jurisdictional environment it is unclear what rules apply, and which agency is ultimately responsible for the activities of the fusion center participants.
- Private Sector Participation. Some fusion centers incorporate private-sector corporations into the intelligence process, potentially undermining privacy laws designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans, and increasing the risk of a data breach.
- Military Participation. Some fusion centers include military personnel in law enforcement activities in troubling ways.
- Data Mining. Federal fusion center guidelines encourage wholesale data collection and data manipulation processes that threaten privacy.
- Excessive Secrecy. Fusion centers are characterized by excessive secrecy, which limits public oversight, impairs their ability to acquire essential information and impedes their ability to fulfill their stated mission, bringing their ultimate value into doubt.
Up to $1.4 Billion Spent Since 2003
“Fusion centers may provide valuable services in fields other than terrorism, such as contributions to traditional criminal investigations, public safety, or disaster response and recovery efforts,” said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat and Subcommittee chairman. “This investigation focused on the federal return from investing in state and local fusion centers, using the counterterrorism objectives established by law and DHS. The report recommends that Congress clarify the purpose of fusion centers and link their funding to their performance.”
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that it has spent somewhere between $289 million and $1.4 billion in public funds to support state and local fusion centers since 2003, broad estimates that differ by over $1 billion. The investigation raises questions about the value this amount of funding and the nation’s more than 70 fusion centers are providing to federal counterterrorism efforts:
• The investigation found that DHS intelligence officers assigned to state and local fusion centers produced 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.”
• DHS officials did not provide evidence to the Subcommittee showing unique contributions that state and local fusion centers made to assist federal counter terrorism intelligence efforts that resulted in the disruption or prevention of a terrorism plot.
• The investigation also found that DHS did not effectively monitor how federal funds provided to state and local fusion centers were used to strengthen federal counterterrorism efforts. A review of the expenditures of five fusion centers found that federal funds were used to purchase dozens of flat screen TVs, two sport utility vehicles, cell phone tracking devices and other surveillance equipment unrelated to the analytical mission of an intelligence center. Their mission is not to do active or covert collection of intelligence. In addition, the fusion centers making these questionable expenditures lacked basic, “must-have” intelligence capabilities, according to DHS assessments.
“With a $16 trillion national debt and $1 trillion annual deficit, Congress has a duty to the American people to ensure that every dollar we are spending – particularly those spent on national priorities like counterterrorism – is spent wisely and effectively,” Coburn said. “This bipartisan investigation shows that Congress needs to ensure it is getting value for the millions of taxpayer dollars invested in fusion centers.”