Tag: fusion centers

DHS Fusion Centers: Small Part of Homeland Security Waste

Fusion centers are “pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions.” That’s the Washington Post’s summary of a report, two years in the making, released Tuesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigation.

With all due respect to the Senate investigators, who did thorough and commendable work here, it does not take two years and 140 pages to reach their conclusion. Along with the ACLU, Cato scholars have made similar arguments for years.

Fusion centers grew from the revelation in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that federal security agencies, states governments, and local law enforcement were failing to share information about terrorists. Although the attacks resulted as much from the difficulty of distinguishing pertinent information from the rest as from impediments in information-sharing, it was reasonable to address the second problem. But whether that required physical spaces devoted to information sharing—let alone the 70-plus of them we now have spread across the country—is another story.

The wisdom of that spasm of bureaucratic creation turned largely on the truth of the official insistence in the panicky aftermath of the attacks that the United States was rife with thousands of hidden al Qaeda operatives and that mass casualty attacks would occur with the regularity of extreme hurricanes. Predictably, there weren’t enough terrorists to go around. And it doesn’t take Max Weber to see that their dearth wouldn’t cause the searchers to slacken their efforts. Fusion centers became a classic solution in search of a problem.

One way to justify fusion centers was to expand their enemy to “all hazards.” A second was to exaggerate the terrorist menace, for example by insisting that its quiescence indicated that it was not weak or absent, but well-hidden and patient (note: the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, especially when you are searching a lot; it’s just not proof of absence). Of course, advocates overstated the fusion centers’ contribution to terrorism arrests. And even without arrests, they could conflate activity with success, by pointing to, for example, leads pursued and cases opened as if they were security itself. That last technique continues today in the pushback  to the Senate report.

Keep in mind that fusion centers, which cost federal taxpayers at most a few hundred million a year, are symptoms of a larger problem. The entire national security apparatus has grown by leaps and bounds since 2001 thanks to a threat that has, thankfully, proved vastly weaker than most thought.

Abolish the Department of Homeland Security

We’re ten years past 9/11, and over the last decade we’ve shed a number of our liberties and spent wildly to counter a terrorist threat that, as the recent model airplane plot demonstrated, isn’t existential. The bureaucratic legacy of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, has proven an unwieldy and pork-laden nightmare. It’s time to abolish it.

My recent policy analysis, Abolish the Department of Homeland Security, makes the case for doing so. To begin with, DHS is a management disaster by its very nature:

In creating Homeland Security, Congress lumped together 22 previously unconnected federal agencies under a new Cabinet secretary. That’s a problem, not a solution. And while members of Congress routinely clamor for consolidating Homeland Security oversight in one committee, that seems unlikely: 108 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the department’s operations. If aggregating disparate fields of government made any sense in the first place, we long ago would have consolidated all Cabinet responsibilities under one person — the secretary of government.

Apart from the structural handicaps that DHS faces, the whole notion of “homeland security” is problematic. The “odiously Teutono/Soviet” concept trends us ever closer to a police state and is particularly prone to pork-barrel spending. As I said in my recent op-ed on the topic:

It allows politicians to wrap pork in red, white and blue in a way not possible with defense spending. Not every town can host a military installation or build warships, but every town has a police force that can use counterterrorism funds to combat gangs or a fire department that needs recruits or a new fire station.

Congress must reform its grant programs and end this wasteful spending. While we’re at it, let’s end federal funding for fusion centers, local- and state-organized intelligence cells that duplicate FBI efforts in counterterrorism and end up labeling nearly anyone who expresses political dissent as a potential terrorist, a point I made at this Capitol Hill Briefing. I’ll be speaking at another Capitol Hill Briefing with Jim Harper today on abolishing the Transportation Security Administration. More information available here.

We’re All Terrorists Now

The Tennessee ACLU sent a letter to public schools warning them not to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The Tennessee Fusion Center (H/T Uncle) put the communication on its map of “terrorism events and other suspicious activity”:

“ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday,’” the website’s explanation reads.

Also among the map’s highlights: “McMinn County Teen Brings Gun to School,” and “Turkish National Salih Acarbulut Indicted in Chattanooga for Alleged $12 million Ponzi Scheme.”

Mike Browning, a spokesman for the Fusion Center, said “that was a mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a suspicious activity. He said the Fusion Center meant to use the icon that means merely general information. The icon was changed after the ACLU sent its news release, he said.

“It’s still on the map,” Browning told The City Paper. “It has been reclassified into the general information category.”

But a look at the website shows there is no icon for general information. Instead, the icon for the ACLU letter now signifies “general terrorism news,” according to the website’s legend.

This follows a long line of fusion center and DHS reports labeling broad swaths of the public as a threat to national security. The North Texas Fusion System labeled Muslim lobbyists as a potential threat; a DHS analyst in Wisconsin thought both pro- and anti-abortion activists were worrisome; a Pennsylvania homeland security contractor watched environmental activists, Tea Party groups, and a Second Amendment rally; the Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a fusion center in Missouri thought that all third-party voters and Ron Paul supporters were a threat; and the Department of Homeland Security described half of the American political spectrum as “right wing extremists.”

The ACLU fusion center report and update lay out some good background on these issues, and the Spyfiles report describes how monitoring lawful dissent has become routine for police departments around the nation. Cato hosted Mike German, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and co-author of the ACLU fusion report at a forum on fusion centers, available here.

Showdown on Homeland Security

If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend the Frontline report Are We Safer? Since September 11, 2001, the government has gone on a spending spree without any regard for fiscal federalism, dumping $31 billion into grant programs. The program is based on The Washington PostsTop Secret America article, “Monitoring America.” Watch it below:

Much of this spending has gone to local pork projects or allowed state and local governments to avoid the realities of budgeting – spend federal counterterrorism dollars on normal law enforcement requirements while spending the local tax base on unsustainable pensions for public employees. For a tally of this excess, check out the Price of Peril, an interactive map showing homeland security spending by state, courtesy of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

All of this spending isn’t without cost to our civil liberties. The recipients of the money have to show something, hence the rise of fusion centers across the nation and the scaremongering reports they produce. There simply aren’t enough terrorists to go around.

Two of the people featured in the Frontline report, Mike German of the ACLU (and former FBI agent) and Harvey Eisenberg, Chief, National Security Section, Office of United States Attorney, District of Maryland, squared off at a Cato Institute event in 2009. Check it out here. Pay special attention to Eisenberg’s remarks at 53:35, where he misstates the threshold for starting a domestic counterterrorism investigation under the Attorney General Guidelines.

Mike German corrects him – the 2008 guidelines loosened the standard such that agents don’t even need a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to investigate someone. Eisenberg responds that he requires it for all of his investigations. That’s admirable, if true, but a bit unnerving that the policy change is news to him.

Fusion Centers

Most people don’t care about government surveillance – just so long as they are not affected by it.  We want the police to be on lookout for trouble – so some surveillance is necessary for the work they do.  But how much?

After 9/11, state officials said they had difficulty “connecting all the dots.”  Fusion centers are supposed to remedy that problem.  Police departments around the country are creating databases (“fusion centers”) and the objective is to link them together so that the police can spot patterns of behavior so that crimes or terrorist attacks can be thwarted.

The goal seems sensible and worthwhile but as the details emerge on how fusion centers operate, the concept gets controversial fast.  Who will be monitored? What kind of information will be  collected?   And who decides when pieces of information should be discarded or entered into a massive database?  If false information about, say, YOU, goes into the database, will you ever learn about it?  Have an opportunity to erase it or correct it?

Fusion centers are springing up all over the country and they are coordinating the efforts of some 800,000 American law enforcement officers to collect information about anyone deemed suspicious. One problem is that terrorists are not of a monolithic character. Terrorists can be extremely religious or secular; they may be Arab, white, black or any other race; terrorists come from both rich and poor backgrounds; they come from the far right, the far left – and some are simply against society generally. And when criminals are added to the mix, the potential dragnet for this casual government surveillance potentially covers scores of people.

Behaviors that make someone eligible for government monitoring are quite broad. As noted by Bruce Fein in his testimony before Congress in April, citing a July 2008 ACLU report on fusion centers, such suspicious behaviors in one LAPD directive include “using binoculars,” “taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent aesthetic value,” “drawing diagrams,” and “taking notes,” among others.

Former vice-president Cheney might argue that the monitoring is not extensive enough.  He recently said (pdf): “When just a single clue goes unlearned … can bring on a catastrophe – it’s no time for splitting differences.  There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”  National security, it seems,  requires that we get everyone into the central database for scrutiny.  We can’t afford any ”gaps” in the surveillance matrix.

I will be moderating a Cato event about fusion centers on Thursday, June 11, at noon.  The panel will include attorney Bruce Fein, the ACLU’s Mike German (who co-authored the report linked above), and Harvey Eisenberg, Chief of the National Security Section in the Maryland Division of the U.S. Attorney’s office.