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Intelligence effort kept tabs on citizens, not terrorists

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 11:51 p.m. MDT

Analysts work at the Combined Intelligence and Fusion Center for NORAD/Northcom in 2004.   (Associated Press) Analysts work at the Combined Intelligence and Fusion Center for NORAD/Northcom in 2004. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — A multibillion-dollar information-sharing program created in the aftermath of 9/11 has improperly collected information about innocent Americans and produced little valuable intelligence on terrorism, a Senate report concludes. It portrays an effort that ballooned far beyond anyone's ability to control.

What began as an attempt to put local, state and federal officials in the same room analyzing the same intelligence has instead cost huge amounts of money for data-mining software, flat screen televisions and, in Arizona, two fully equipped Chevrolet Tahoes that are used for commuting, investigators found.

The lengthy, bipartisan report is a scathing evaluation of what the Department of Homeland Security has held up as a crown jewel of its security efforts. The report underscores a reality of post-9/11 Washington: National security programs tend to grow, never shrink, even when their money and manpower far surpass the actual subject of terrorism. Much of this money went for ordinary local crime-fighting.

Disagreeing with the critical conclusions of the report, Homeland Security says it is outdated, inaccurate and too focused on information produced by the program, ignoring benefits to local governments from their involvement with federal intelligence officials.

FILE - In this March 15, 2011 file photo, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at the National Fusion Center Conference in Denver. A multibillion-dollar information-sharing program that was created in the aftermath of 9/11 has improperly collected information about innocent Americans and produced no valuable intelligence on terrorism, according to a Senate report that describes an effort that ballooned far beyond anyone?s ability to control.  (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File) (Associated Press) FILE - In this March 15, 2011 file photo, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks at the National Fusion Center Conference in Denver. A multibillion-dollar information-sharing program that was created in the aftermath of 9/11 has improperly collected information about innocent Americans and produced no valuable intelligence on terrorism, according to a Senate report that describes an effort that ballooned far beyond anyone?s ability to control. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File) (Associated Press)

Because of a convoluted grants process set up by Congress, Homeland Security officials don't know how much they have spent in their decade-long effort to set up so-called fusion centers in every state. Government estimates range from less than $300 million to $1.4 billion in federal money, plus much more invested by state and local governments. Federal funding is pegged at about 20 percent to 30 percent.

Despite that, Congress is unlikely to pull the plug. That's because, whether or not it stops terrorists, the program means politically important money for state and local governments.

A Senate Homeland Security subcommittee reviewed more than 600 unclassified reports over a one-year period and concluded that most had nothing to do with terrorism. The panel's chairman is Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

"The subcommittee investigation could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot," the report said.

When fusion centers did address terrorism, they sometimes did so in ways that infringed on civil liberties. The centers have made headlines for circulating information about Ron Paul supporters, the ACLU, activists on both sides of the abortion debate, war protesters and advocates of gun rights.

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