Senate investigation finds anti-terrorism hubs fail to protect privacy

By Kaley Fowler

The federal government’s funding of fusion centers—hubs for law enforcement agencies to investigate suspected terrorism activity—is under scrutiny after a two-year investigation led by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

The investigation, initiated by Sen. Tom Coburn (R–Okla.), examined the effectiveness of the centers, which were implemented after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to enable local and state agencies to collect and communicate terrorism information to the Department of Homeland Security. However, the Senate’s report asserts that the centers are ineffective.

According to the 107-page document released Oct. 2, fusion centers produced reports that were “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.”

Becky Bernhardt, spokeswoman for Coburn, said the Senate was prompted to launch the investigation after public reports aroused their suspicion.

“The investigation, which focused on DHS’ involvement with the fusion centers, found problems throughout the department’s efforts,” Bernhardt said. “DHS lacks effective financial oversight of the centers, appears unable to obtain useful terrorism-related intelligence from the centers and has struggled to measure fusion centers’ performance to ensure value to the federal taxpayer.”

While the 11-member subcommittee is adamant that DHS needs to re-evaluate its partnership with fusion centers, the department maintains that they offer a valuable service.

“The committee report on federal support for fusion centers is out of date, inaccurate and misleading,” said Matthew Chandler, a DHS spokesman, in an email. “Not only does the report rely on limited data from two to three years ago in its analysis, [but] much of what it identifies as problematic had been identified and rectified by DHS prior to their investigation.”

Chandler added that the subcommittee “overlooks the significant benefits” of fusion centers, which protect public safety because they enable law enforcement agencies on all levels to share information regarding what they believe to be terrorist and criminal activity.

Although DHS believes sharing information leads to efficiency, the Senate report states that citizens’ privacy is not being adequately protected.

“The danger is that [the] information ends up in a fusion center and gets distributed widely across law enforcement communities throughout America and hurts people who are described in these files,” said Adam Schwartz, senior staff council of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Schwartz said there are two fusion centers in Illinois, one operated by state police and one by the Chicago Police Department. In light of the Senate report, the ACLU examined the two Illinois centers and became concerned that they were inadequately regulated, according to Schwartz.

“The Chicago fusion center allows information about a person to be stored and disseminated in the absence of reasonable suspicion of a crime,” he said. “The Chicago and Illinois fusion centers both take on no responsibility to ensure that the information they are gathering and storing is accurate.”

According to Bernhardt, the subcommittee is calling on DHS to reform its intelligence reporting, improve the training of its employees and eliminate duplication of state and local centers. It is also asking DHS to re-evaluate whether the centers deserve the $300 million to $1.4 billion in federal funding it receives annually.

Despite these requests, DHS remains adamant that fusion centers play an important role in anti-terrorism efforts.

“The Department of Homeland Security supports fusion centers … as well as the deployment of DHS intelligence officers who work side-by-side with fusion center personnel to assess threats and share information,” Chandler said. “Homeland security begins with hometown security, and fusion centers play a vital role in keeping communities safe all across America.”