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Report finds that while the centers may lead to civil liberties violations, they don't do much to catch terrorists

In a new 146-page report released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation, a bipartisan panel of senators calls into question the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) claims that so-called "Fusion" data centers have successfully been employed to stop terrorists.

I. Surprise! The Fed. Government Wasted Taxpayer Money on Abusive Scheme

While the DHS claimed that the centers were used to stop the Afghan immigrant Najibullah Zazi's 2009 plot to bomb the New York subway, the Senate "could identify nothing that uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution any fusion center made to disrupt an active terrorist plot."

Contrast that with what DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a 2010 speech in which she commented, "It was a fusion center near Denver that played the key role in 'fusing' the information that came from the public with evidence that came in following the [subway plot] suspect's arrest by the FBI."

The Senate committee said that the 2009 plot and others -- like a 2010 effort to place a car bomb in Times Square -- were not cracked by the Fusion centers at all. The officers involved in the cases would have done the exact same thing they did to crack those cases, with or without the data center.  For example, in the subway plot, the Colorado state troopers who solved the cases were working with their state's data center, but their detective work to discover and stop the plot came from the agency they were primarily reporting to -- the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The Senate concludes that when all the privileged details of the investigations were considered, there was no sign that the pricey data centers were successful at fighting any known terrorist plot.

So what did the data centers accomplish?  According to the panel the legacy is mostly negative.  They claim the Fusion centers -- whose objective is ostensibly to share national intelligence with state/local law enforcement and analyze potential terrorist threats -- in the end mostly ended up violating U.S. citizens' civil liberties.

Data Center
"Fusion" data centers did little to stop terrorism, but did violate civil liberties and waste taxpayer dollars, according to the Senate. [Image Source: The LA Times]

Writes the panel, "[DHS liaisons] 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."

One example of such a shoddy effort is in the case of the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center's recent claims that a Russian hacker had stolen sensitive usernames and passwords from a state utility.  Those claims would haunt an IT worker from the utility, who had merely been doing his employer's bidding by remotely (and securely) managing systems while abroad on vacation.

Because of the poor detective work, it took some time for authorities to realize the devious "hacker" was merely a figment of agents' overactive imaginations.  And in the meantime the employee faced unwelcome scrutiny, for basically doing his job.

II. Trading Freedom for Security

It's a story that Americans have grown all too accustomed to in the post-9/11 "police state" era: unwilling to be troubled with solid detective work, and with a wealth of new abusable privileges, citizens' civil liberties are trampled even as the government does little to ensure their safety.

Worst of all, the Senators were unable to even able to figure out how much was spent on the data centers, only able to ascertain it was between $289M to $1.4B USD in taxpayer money arguably down the drain.

Of course the bipartisan panel can only wave the finger at Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama who signed the funding bills and Fusion center plans into law.  After, all it was the House and Senate who passed the funding and authorizations that called for the centers in the first place.

Some defend the Fusion centers.  For example the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) counterterrorism chief, Deputy Chief Michael Downing, told the Los Angeles Times that despite a lot of "white noise", "There are occasionally gold nuggets."

Unsurprisingly DHS spokesman Michael Chandler also labeled the investigation as "fundamentally flawed", commenting, "The committee report on federal support for fusion centers is out of date, inaccurate and misleading.

Homeland Security
The DHS claims the Senate is wrong and that the "Fusion" centers are great. [Image Source: CyTalk]

Whether or not the centers were as useless as the Senators' report claims, the report does make clear the key problem was that the centers were tasking state/local law enforcement agents with investigation responsibilities that they were incapable of handling, rather than leaving their use up to the various sophisticated federal law enforcement agencies that know how to best make use of those mid-level skilled resources.  The results ranged from mistakes to potential abuse.

Thus the U.S. is left to grapple once again with the question of whether its politicians are playing a game of Security Theater.

For those interested, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation members include:

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI)
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-DE)
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-LA)
Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK)
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-ME)
Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA)
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

Sources: Senate [press release], LA Times

Comments     Threshold

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By rs2 on 10/3/2012 8:16:44 PM , Rating: 5
Your section title, "Trading Freedom for Security", isn't really accurate. As the article notes, the domestic spying does little to find/capture terrorists. So at best we're trading freedom for the *illusion* of security.

By that logic, I could claim this rock keeps tigers away. How does it work? It doesn't, but I don't see any tigers around, do you?

RE: Trading
By PaFromFL on 10/4/2012 12:51:46 AM , Rating: 1
The problem is that people like the illusion of security and will believe just about anything. You could found a new religion centered around your magic rock. The belief that a police state will keep you safe is similar to a religious belief. Where is your faith?

RE: Trading
By Jeffk464 on 10/5/2012 12:06:56 AM , Rating: 2
Even if terrorists were able to pull off one attack per year on the scale of the 9/11 atrocity, that would mean your one-year risk would be one in 100,000 and your lifetime risk would be about one in 1300. (300,000,000 ÷ 3,000 = 100,000 ÷ 78 years = 1282) In other words, your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered.

People are not good a judging risk. We fear the scary stuff like terrorism whereas the stuff very likely to cause our demise we don't worry about.

RE: Trading
By Schadenfroh on 10/5/2012 10:56:05 AM , Rating: 2
Indeed, people are not concerned with statistics.

Examples (in the US):

* The seasonal flu wipes out orders of magnitude more people than West Nile, yet people fear the latter and not the former.

* Semi-auto "Assault Weapons" are used in < 5% of gun related crimes, yet people constantly call for them to be banned over handguns (which are used by criminals in the overwhelming majority of incidents despite being the most regulated other than full-auto machine guns).

The list goes on and on...

RE: Trading
By FaaR on 10/5/2012 2:34:57 PM , Rating: 2
You can do a heck of a lot more damage with an assault rifle than with a handgun, though. Not only are the clips bigger (sometimes by quite a lot), is accuracy much higher (can mount scopes and stuff on 'em), range is much higher, and more powder in the cartridge means impact damage is greater. Small-caliber, high-velocity rifles can do hydrostatic shock damage to inner organs and stuff. So in all a much more lethal object.

It's bulkier though which makes it harder for crazed gunman types to bring one concealed to work, school, a cinema or whatnot. Something to put in the positive column, I guess.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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