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Washington - An initiative aimed at improving intelligence sharing has done little to make the country more secure, despite as much as $1.4 billion in federal spending, according to a two-year examination by Senate investigators.
The nationwide network of offices known as "fusion centers" was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to address concerns that local, state and federal authorities were not sharing information effectively about potential terrorist threats.
But after nine years - and regular praise from officials at the Department of Homeland Security - the 77 fusion centers have become pools of ineptitude, waste and civil liberties intrusions, according to a scathing 141-page report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations.
The creation and operation of the fusion centers were promoted by the administration of President George W. Bush and later the Obama administration as essential in keeping the country safe from terrorism. The idea was to promote increased collaboration and cooperation among all levels of law enforcement.
But 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.
The bipartisan report, released by subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking minority member Tom Coburn, R-Okla., portrays the fusion center system as ineffective and criticizes the Department of Homeland Security for poor supervision.
In a response Tuesday, the department condemned the report and defended the fusion centers, saying the Senate investigators relied on out-of-date data. The Senate investigators examined fusion center reports in 2009 and 2010 and looked at activity, training and policies over nine years, according to the report.
The statement also said the Senate investigators misunderstood the role of fusion centers, "which is to provide state and local law enforcement analytic support in furtherance of their day-to-day efforts to protect local communities from violence, including that associated with terrorism."
The DHS statement also said that all of the questioned expenses were allowable under the rules.
Department officials have defended the fusion centers in the face of past criticism from the press and internal reviews. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and other senior officials have praised the centers as centerpieces of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, an advocacy organization, called the report unfair. Sena, who manages the center in the San Francisco Bay area, said fusion centers have processed more than 22,000 "suspicious activity reports" that have triggered 1,000 federal inquiries or investigations. He said they also have shared some 200 "pieces of data" with the Terrorist Screening Center that provided "actionable intelligence."
The Senate report challenged the value of the training and much of the information produced by the centers. It said that DHS analysts assigned to the fusion centers received just five days of basic training for intelligence reporting. Sena said they received an array of other training as well.
Some analysts at the department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which received the fusion center reports, were found to be so unproductive that supervisors imposed quotas for reports, knowing those quotas would diminish the quality of the intelligence, according to the Senate report. Many of those analysts at the DHS intelligence office were contractors.
Investigators found instances in which the analysts used intelligence about U.S. citizens that may have been gathered illegally. In one case, a fusion center in California wrote a report on a notorious gang, the Mongols Motorcycle Club, that had distributed leaflets telling its members to behave when they get stopped by police. The leaflet said members should be courteous, control their emotions and, if drinking, have a designated driver.
"There is nothing illegal or even remotely objectionable (described) in this report," one supervisor wrote about the draft before killing it. "The advice given to the groups' members is protected by the First Amendment."
Financial questions were pervasive, with the report saying oversight has been so lax that department officials do not know exactly how much as been spent on the centers. The official estimates varied between $289 million and $1.4 billion.
A DHS official, who insisted on not being identified because he was not authorized to talk to the press, acknowledged that the department does not closely track the money but said it conducts audits of the fusion spending. The official said that just under half of the fusion centers' budgets comes from the department.
In the statement, the department said its Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the grants, provides "wide latitude" for states to decide how to spend the money.
"All of the expenditures questioned in the report are allowable under the grant program guidance, whether or not they are connected with a fusion center," the statement said.
The Senate report said that local and state officials entrusted with the fusion center grants sometimes spent lavishly. 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.
Senate investigators repeatedly questioned the quality of the intelligence reports. 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.