Our Broken Panopticon: Senate Report Finds Fusion Centers Expensive & Useless

For years, top officials at the Department of Homeland Security have touted  “fusion centers“—designed to share security information between state, local, and federal government agencies— as a “vital tool for strengthening homeland security,” a “proven and invaluable tool,” and “one of the centerpieces of our  counterterrorism strategy.” But a blistering new bipartisan Senate report paints a radically different picture, exposing these centers as a costly boondoggle that flouted civil liberties safeguards, lacked basic accountability, and produced “intelligence” that was overwhelmingly useless or irrelevant—or as one particularly candid official put it, “a load of crap.”

How costly are they? Incredibly, DHS can’t even say for certain: Estimates of federal spending on the centers range from $289 million to $1.4 billion. Given that most states had a distinct shortage of real terrorists to keep tabs on, much of that money went to purposes utterly unrelated to actual counterterrorism analysis. One center blew $75,000 on dozens of flat-screen televisions, supposedly for an intelligence training program that never materialized.  Now the TVs are being used to display calendars, and for “open-source monitoring”—also known as “watching the news.”  Other popular purchases included Sport Utility Vehicles, laptops, and high tech surveillance toys for ordinary law enforcement—many of which were then given away to other local government agencies.

How useless are they? One official estimated that 85 percent of the reports they produced were of no benefit whatever, and the large majority of reports were unrelated to terrorism. Most of these weren’t published or circulated for months, and they often just regurgitated information from public press reports. Almost all these reports came from centers in just three states: Most of the 77 fusion centers produced little or nothing at all. Sorry, make that 68 fusion centers—it turns out the official DHS tally included several that didn’t actually exist.

Unsurprisingly, DHS “struggled to identify a clear example” in which fusion center intelligence helped identify any actual terrorists—and indeed, may have hampered effective counterterrorism by clogging the intelligence arteries with “predominantly useless” information. To keep justifying those millions of taxpayer dollars, however, DHS touted bogus “success stories,” like a report that sowed panic over a Russian cyberattack on a city’s water system—a cyberattack that had never happened. When internal assessments began to reveal the ineffectuality of fusion centers years ago, DHS hid the results from Congress—and kept on praising them publicly.

Of course, civil liberties groups have been warning for years that fusion centers are more likely to facilitate improper monitoring of citizens than legitimate security goals. And the Senate report shows they had reason to worry. One key DHS official revealed a disturbing view of he value of intra-agency “cooperation” when he noted that “We had fire [departments] — one of the few people who can enter your home without a warrant is a firefighter.” One notorious fusion center report suggested that Libertarian Party members, Ron Paul supporters, and individuals flying the Gadsden Flag popular with Tea Partiers were likely to be violent extremists. Many reports were shelved because they documented only innocent, protected First Amendment activity—but the information in them was often retained anyway, in potential violation of the Privacy Act.

Yet perhaps because those earlier criticisms fit the familiar narrative of the “privacy versus security” debate, less attention was devoted to the more basic question:  Do these programs actually provide any security? Are the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars being spent on fusion centers making us any safer?

Unfortunately, this is something of a pattern—one I noted in National Review back in 2010. Utter the words “terrorism” or “national security” and even the most ardent deficit hawks are often cowed, fearful of being branded “soft on terror” if they dare to question whether the latest urgent effort to “do something” is really doing anything useful with taxpayer dollars. Cash-strapped local agencies and D.C. intelligence contractors are only too happy to accept funds unburdened by accountability. The result, as my colleague John Mueller has exhaustively documented, has been a decade of waste: Hundreds of billions squandered on one faddish new program after another, invariably touted as “vital” and “life-saving” when a veil of secrecy kept anyone from checking those dramatic claims—and all too often exposed, much later, as a costly gift to terrorists that had rendered us less safe by diverting resources and wasting the time of intelligence agents.

Perhaps, finally, Congress is ready to get serious about cost-benefit analysis, even for programs sporting a “security” label.  That this report got published suggests that at least a few federal legislators care about finding effective ways to keep us safe—not just throwing our money away in a desperate attempt to look tough. Alas, the final “Recommendations” section seems geared toward finding a way to “fix” fusion centers rather than scrapping them.  The “toughest” move now would be to admit that the centers are a failure, at least as a counterterrorism tool, that they’re unlikely to ever provide an intelligence benefit that remotely justifies their costs, and stop throwing good money after bad.