Anti-terrorism ‘fusion centers’ get failing marks from US panel
October 08, 2012 12:00 am • Maryann Batlle Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – Arizona agencies were among those singled out in a two-year Senate probe that reported “widespread deficiencies” in a Homeland Security Department program that officials touted for years as a centerpiece in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The report found that the local-federal “fusion centers” that were supposed to aid the federal government in terrorism prevention instead produced intelligence that was “oftentimes shoddy” and “unrelated to terrorism.” It also said federal officials could not adequately track millions of dollars directed to the centers.
Included in the questionable spending was money to Arizona law enforcement agencies that was used to buy sport utility vehicles and to outfit the “wire room,” a surveillance monitoring room at the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, the state’s fusion center.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a written statement that the committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations “found a remarkable degree of ineffectiveness, ineptitude and waste” in the program.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, said the subcommittee’s report is “wrong and misleading by omission.” She said she believes fusion centers provide “a big service to the community” by augmenting existing counterterrorism efforts.
There are 77 fusion centers across the country. While the state and local law enforcement hubs perform many roles, their anti-terrorism functions were beefed up, and the number of centers increased, after 9/11 to aid the federal government in terrorism prevention.
Matt Mayer, a former senior Homeland Security official who worked under Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, said he fought the expansion of the centers but lost. Mayer said the department focused on “quantity over quality” and is underfunding centers in critical areas.
“There are bright spots out there … but, unfortunately, a lot of (fusion centers) exist that don’t deserve funding,” said Mayer, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Among its findings, the subcommittee said that DHS could not provide an “accurate tally” of the program’s total costs, but that estimates ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion.
Some of that DHS grant money went to the Arizona Department of Public Safety to fund initiatives at the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center.
The subcommittee questioned federal oversight of some of the Arizona spending, including one case when a state official expressed concern about the legitimacy of spending $1.98 million to lease space, which is not strictly allowed. The state official was assured it would be OK in an email, complete with smiley-face emoticon, from an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Federal funds also paid for two SUVs outfitted with specialized equipment, most of which fell outside of the scope of the program, the report said.
The Department of Public Safety used about $33,500 in grant funds to buy an SUV in 2008 for a terrorism liaison officer at the Flagstaff Fire Department, and another $9,400 on aftermarket equipment that would let it respond to chemical, biological and other events. But the report said such responses are unrelated to “essential fusion center capability” under the program.
“The city official to whom the vehicle was assigned told the subcommittee he keeps the truck at his house and uses it primarily to commute between his home and the Flagstaff Fire Department,” the report said.
In 2009, the Arizona State University Police Department got an SUV that was paid for with about $47,000 in grant funds, also for a terrorism liaison officer. Again, the subcommittee found the expenses outside the grant’s purpose.
The subcommittee also pointed to $64,000 in federal funds used to buy software, a laptop, monitors and two 42-inch flat-screen televisions for “the wire room,” a surveillance room used for criminal investigations. But the subcommittee noted that program guidelines “do not include covert or surreptitious intelligence gathering.”
The report said the centers have not “yielded timely, useful” counterterrorism information. It noted that ACTIC was linked to incorrect information after the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, which suggested that shooter Jared Lee Loughner was linked to an anti-Semitic and anti-government group. Many of the claims made in the document were later proven false, the report said.
Included in a Senate investigation into federal spending on local-federal “fusion centers” was spending by Arizona officials on items that members of the subcommittee questioned:
• In 2008, the Arizona Department of Public Safety spent more than $33,500 on a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and another $9,400 to install aftermarket equipment. The report said the expenditures were unrelated to “essential fusion center activity.”
• In 2009, the state used $47,000 in Department of Homeland Security funds for a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV that it gave to the Arizona State University Police Department.
• In 2009, roughly $64,000 went for surveillance-technology training and to equip a criminal-investigation surveillance room, known as “the wire room,” for Arizona’s fusion center. It bought software, a new laptop, monitors and two 42-inch flat screen televisions, even though the program does not call for “surreptitious intelligence gathering.”
• In 2011, faulty intelligence originating from the Arizona fusion center suggested Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner might have been be linked to an anti-Semitic and anti-government group, claims that later proved to be false.