A Senate committee investigative report released today finds that fusion centers - massive Department of Homeland Security (DHS) undertakings touted as a solution to "information sharing" - are a colossal waste of taxpayer money and do little, if anything, to improve national security. The New York Times on the report:
The report found that the 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 Senate report contains evidence of fusion centers' needless invasion Americans' privacy rights, useless intelligence reporting, pervasive lack of oversight, and complete inability to account for the taxpayers money. DHS can't even give a definite number about how much taxpayer money it has spent on the fusion centers, and the margin of error is way bigger than the Powerball jackpot. WaPo reported:
[the Senate report says] oversight has been so lax that department officials do not know exactly how much has been spent on the centers. The official estimates varied between $289 million and $1.4 billion.Government could have saved American taxpayers a few hundred million by listening to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) when it warned back in 2007 that the developing fusion centers lacked proper oversight and endangered Americans' privacy rights. Five years ago, the ACLU reported that fusion centers
. . . raise very serious privacy issues . . . [and] there are serious questions about whether data fusion is an effective means of preventing terrorism in the first place, and whether funding the development of these centers is a wise investment of finite public safety resources.The ACLU's report warned:
The lack of proper legal limits on the new fusion centers not only threatens to undermine fundamental American values, but also threatens to turn them into wasteful and misdirected bureaucracies that, like our federal security agencies before 9/11, won't succeed in their ultimate mission of stopping terrorism and other crime.Dana Priest and Bill Arkin's book Top Secret America contained similar warning signs:
The issue of wasteful duplication, represented by the many fusion centers, the many agencies doing the same work, the many contracts and research projects on information operations, was not just a question of money down the drain. Sometimes redundancy actually impeded an agency's mission.(pg. 93-94).
Nonetheless, DHS, under both the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations, has continued to empower and fund fusion centers.
Likewise, presidents of both political parties have been pumping up the now-monstrous DHS for a decade now. The fusion centers' failures are endemic of larger problems with the bloated, expensive DHS. From NYT:
The report on the dysfunctional nature of the fusion centers makes clear that in the decade since the department was created, Homeland Security has not carved out a clear counterterror mission that does not overlap with those of other agencies.
Press reports highlighted some of the most ridiculous wastes of American taxpayer money in the Senate report:
More than $2 million was spent on a center for Philadelphia that never opened. In Ohio, officials used the money to buy rugged laptop computers and then gave them to a local morgue. San Diego officials bought 55 flat-screen televisions to help them collect “open-source intelligence” — better known as cable television news.
. . . 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.
The dysfunction of the centers could sometimes have bizarre and comic results. Last November, for example, an Illinois center reported that Russian hackers had broken into the computer system of a local water district in Springfield and sent computer commands that triggered a water pump to burn out. But it turned out that a repair technician had remotely accessed the water district’s computer system while he was on vacation in Russia.
A third or more of the reports intended for officials in Washington were discarded because they lacked useful information, had been drawn from media accounts or involved potentially illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens, according to the Senate report.The Senate report should serve as a wake-up call for the Executive branch, years and billions of taxpayer dollars in the making, that simply throwing money at the problem of national security - and into the hands of private contractors - does not make us any safer. Americans are paying the price with their money, their privacy rights and their First Amendment freedoms, but are not buying any better security.
On a wholly separate note, there is a must-read piece in The Atlantic, which discusses the war on whistleblowers.