But after nine years — and regular praise from officials at the Department of Homeland Security — the 77 fusion centers have become pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions, according to a scathing 141-page report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations.
The creation and operation of the fusion centers were promoted by the administration of President George W. Bush and later the Obama administration as essential weapons in the fight to build a nationwide network that would keep the country safe from terrorism. The idea was to promote increased collaboration and cooperation among all levels of law enforcement across the country.
But the report documents spending on items that did little to help share intelligence, including gadgets such as “shirt button” cameras, $6,000 laptops and big-screen televisions. One fusion center spent $45,000 on a decked-out SUV that a city official used for commuting.
“In reality, the Subcommittee investigation found that the fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever,” the report said.
The bipartisan report, released by subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking minority member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), portrays the fusion center system as ineffective and criticizes the Department of Homeland Security for poor supervision.
In a response Tuesday, the department condemned the report and defended the fusion centers, saying the Senate investigators relied on out-of-date data. The Senate investigators examined fusion center reports in 2009 and 2010 and looked at activity, training and policies over nine years, according to the report.
The statement also said the Senate investigators misunderstood the role of fusion centers, “which is to provide state and local law enforcement analytic support in furtherance of their day-to-day efforts to protect local communities from violence, including that associated with terrorism.”
The DHS statement also said that all of the questioned expenses were allowable under the rules.
Department officials have defended the fusion centers in the face of past criticism from the news media and internal reviews. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and other senior officials have praised the centers as centerpieces of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, an advocacy organization, called the report unfair. Sena, who manages the center in the San Francisco Bay area, said fusion centers have processed more than 22,000 “suspicious activity reports” that have triggered 1,000 federal inquiries or investigations. He said they also have shared with the Terrorist Screening Center some 200 “pieces of data” that provided “actionable intelligence.”