10/15/2012 10:03 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2012

Searching in a Haystack... Finds Straw

The Senate recently released a report highly critical of state and local fusion centers. Fusion centers amalgamate information from many sources -- state and local law enforcement, first responders, public health, etc. -- to determine threats to public safety. According to the report, the centers were not yielding timely terrorism-related information, were not adequately monitoring funding, and lacked the capability to meaningfully contribute to counterterrorism. There were also numerous examples of money spent on activities well outside the mission: Tahoe SUVs used by the Arizona fire department, laptops used by Ohio medical examiners, flat-screen TVs for the San Diego office to monitor television coverage, etc. This waste was the focus of newspaper coverage -- but the important story lies elsewhere.

There are 77 fusion centers, operating in every state and many major cities. The program was begun in 2006, with the purpose of connecting the dots and preventing another terrorist attack like that of September 11th. The fusion centers were a response to the problems that the FBI had in sharing information with itself, and lack of information sharing between federal agencies (the CIA not forwarding information to the FBI that known terrorists were within the U.S.), etc. The size of the program is a little difficult to determine, as how much funding the fusion centers receive is hard to tell. That was one of the concerns of the Senate report. The total amount of money spent since 2003 on fusion centers lies somewhere between $289 million and $1.4 billion. In short, this is a major effort being made by the U.S. government.

There's not much to show for it. Now the fusion centers have apparently been useful to traditional criminal investigations, in helping with public safety, and in disaster and recovery efforts, and that's all to the good. But they have been much less useful in counterterrorism. Part of that is structural. In 2009, for example, fewer than half of the 70 fusion centers then operating had a DHS intelligence officer, "rendering them functionally disconnected from DHS's reporting process" -- and thus no better off than in the pre-September 11th days.

But there are other reasons for the lack of effectiveness as well. The Senate committee carefully examined 13 months worth of reports, from April 1, 2009, to April 30, 2010. There were 610 reports filed, of which nearly a third were cancelled by DHS reviewers because the reports lacked useful information or ran afoul of privacy or civil-liberty guidelines, or did not fall within the department's mission. Many of the reports were based on open-source information and were months out of date; one such, submitted in March 2010, described a terrorist threat in north Africa of "unknown reliability" dating from a year earlier. Only 94 reports dealt with terrorist activity, and many of these were submitted months after information had been received from the FBI or other agencies. Another report described an illegal alien who overstayed his visa, had a match in the Terrorist Identities Datamarket Environment (a DHS database), and who had tried to shoplift a pair of shoes from Nieman Marcus. The DHS response was that the agency had "no idea what value this would be adding to the IC [Intelligence Community]."

That's part of the problem with the fusion centers. It's easy to gather "suspicious data" and forward it on, especially if that is the model of success within the organization. But does such data collection make us safer? The earlier NSA warrantless wiretapping provides one example of not. Improperly reviewed tips easily lead to a situation where investigative resources are wasted pursuing non-leads.

There is a fundamental problem with the model of the fusion centers. Terrorist groups are small, indeed can be even "lone wolves" whose first criminal act is a terrorist act. And even when monitoring occurs, the monitoring may not pick up the import of the activities. Anders Breivik, the Norweigan convicted of murdering 77 people, hid his purchases of fertilizer, used to bomb an Oslo building, in plain sight. Breivik owned a farm, providing him with a perfect excuse for purchasing large amounts of fertilizer.

The Senate report says that, "Fusion centers may provide valuable services in fields other than terrorism, such as contributions to traditional criminal investigations, public safety, or disaster response and recovery efforts." If they do, their costs should be weighed against putting alternative solutions for public safety, such as community policing, which is known to be a highly effective way of reducing crime. They should not be funded as counterterrorism efforts when they do not function in that way.

The Senate report concludes that, "the Subcommittee investigation was unable to confirm that the fusion centers' contributions... were unique to the intelligence and analytical work expected of fusion centers; or would not have occurred absent a fusion center." Over the six years of their existence, the fusion centers have not played a role in counterterrorism efforts. The fusion centers lack of effectiveness is a strong argument for abolishing them.