Garbage in, garbage out. That, according to a new bipartisan Congressional report, is the problem plaguing a network of 77 “fusion centers” operating in almost every state and major city.
Touted as a centerpiece of domestic counterterrorism efforts, fusion centers are places where federal, state, local and tribal agencies come together to share information about national security and other threats.
The theory is that in their normal activities, state and local police come across information that might be useful in uncovering terrorist plots. The Department of Homeland Security funded and promoted fusion centers as a means to harvest this information and provide it to intelligence analysts so they could “connect the dots” and prevent terrorist attacks.
Sounds good in theory. But as early as 2007, leaked reports from fusion centers showed serious problems with their intelligence gathering.
Instead of looking for terrorist threats, fusion centers were monitoring lawful political and religious activity. That year, the Virginia Fusion Center described a Muslim get-out–the-vote campaign as “subversive.” In 2009, the North Central Texas Fusion Center identified lobbying by Muslim groups as a possible threat.
The DHS dismissed these as isolated episodes, but the two-year Senate investigation found that such tactics were hardly rare. It concluded that fusion centers routinely produce “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate” intelligence that endangers civil liberties.
None of their information has disrupted a single terrorist plot. These revelations call into question the value of fusion centers as currently structured. At a minimum, they underscore the need for greater oversight and clearer rules on what information fusion centers collect and disseminate.
Of course, effective information sharing is critical to national security. But as the Senate investigation demonstrates, there is little value in distributing information if it is shoddy, biased or simply irrelevant. When fusion centers feed such information into the echo chamber of federal databases, they only compound mistakes and clog the system.
The DHS has failed to create effective mechanisms or incentives for quality control. Instead, fusion centers collect and share information according to their individual standards, which vary considerably.
These rules often permit information to flow to federal agencies that has no connection to criminal activity — let alone terrorism. This creates the risk that intelligence networks will become saturated with poor or irrelevant information as well as lend undue credibility to inaccurate data. The Senate report showed that these risks are not just theoretical.
Fusion centers need explicit and consistent rules. The DHS should ensure that the information the centers collect and distribute is relevant, useful and constitutional by requiring them to show some reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.
This is not a particularly high bar to clear. The reasonable suspicion standard is familiar to every police officer. The requirement would serve as an important bulwark against privacy and civil rights violations, but it would also keep meaningless information out of the system.
Without such well-defined and familiar standards, as the Senate report demonstrates, fusion centers are left rudderless.
In addition, fusion centers must have active, independent oversight. While Congressional inquiries are important for exposing problems, the Senate should not have been the first governmental body to take a critical look at fusion centers.
At the state and local level, there is often no mechanism to ensure that fusion centers are generating useful information or complying with the law. At the federal level, the DHS is responsible for verifying that the data shared by fusion centers meet certain minimum standards. But the DHS has delegated this responsibility to the centers themselves and has not conducted independent audits.
DHS oversight has been so poor that the department could not even say how much money it has spent on fusion centers, estimating the cost at somewhere from $289 million to $1.4 billion.
The fusion center system needs an immediate overhaul. Haphazardly collecting information about Americans and calling it “intelligence” damages civil liberties and national security.
As the Senate report recommends, the DHS should work closely with state and local governments to create independent oversight mechanisms and ensure that fusion centers collect and share information lawfully and effectively.
Faiza Patel is co-director and Michael Price is counsel for the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program.