By Ken Dilanian and Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON â€” A federal domestic security effort to help state and local law enforcement catch terrorists by setting up more than 70 information-sharing centers around the country has threatened civil liberties while doing little to combat terrorism, a two-year examination by a Senate subcommittee found.
The so-called fusion centers were created in 2003 after the Sept. 11 commission concluded that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies needed to collaborate more in counter-terrorism efforts.
Funded by federal grants, the fusion centers were intended to share national intelligence with state and local law enforcement and to analyze potential terrorist activity detected by police. Homeland Security Department officials have credited the centers for helping uncover terrorist plans, including a 2009 plot to bomb the New York subway.
But the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, in a 146-page report released Tuesday that reviewed intelligence reports from fusion centers between April 1, 2009, and April 30, 2010, “could identify nothing that uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution any fusion center made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”
Senate investigators concluded that Homeland Security liaisons to the centers “forwarded ‘intelligence’ of uneven quality â€” 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.”
The investigators also found that some local analysts had written inappropriate and potentially illegal reports about constitutionally protected activities of American citizens. Homeland Security officials prevented most from being disseminated.
The Homeland Security Department could not say for sure how much federal money had been spent on the centers, the subcommittee found, providing a range of between $289 million to $1.4 billion.
Homeland Security officials took issue with the conclusions, saying they resulted from a “fundamentally flawed” investigation. “The committee report on federal support for fusion centers is out of date, inaccurate and misleading,” said spokesman Matthew Chandler.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has lauded the centers, which are located in nearly every major metropolitan area. In March 2010, Homeland Security Undersecretary for Intelligence and Analysis Caryn A. Wagner praised them as “the linchpin of the evolving homeland security enterprise.”
The Senate report rebuts statements by Homeland Security officials that the centers helped uncover terrorist plots, including a 2010 attempt to blow up a sport utility vehicle in Times Square, saying that the same work would have been done through previously existing channels.
One of the most significant terrorism cases in which officials have claimed a success for fusion centers was that of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant who traveled in 2009 from Colorado to New York City, where he has admitted that he planned to blow himself up on the subway around the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Napolitano claimed in a speech in 2010 that “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 suspect’s arrest by the FBI.”
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