An alarming report published by the Department of Homeland Security in March 2010 called attention to the theft of dozens of pounds of dangerous explosives from an airport storage bunker in Washington state.
Like many such warnings, it drew on information gathered by one of the department's so-called "fusion centers" created to exchange data among state, local and federal officials, all at a cost to the federal government of hundreds of millions of dollars.
There was just one problem with that report, and many others like it: the theft had occurred seven months earlier, and it had been highlighted within five days in a press release by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which was seeking citizen assistance in tracking down the culprits.
The DHS report's tardiness and its duplication of work by others has been a commonplace failing of work performed by fusion centers nationwide, according to a new investigation of the DHS-funded centers by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The centers were created with great fanfare over the past decade by Washington with the aim of redressing gaps in intelligence-sharing among local, state, and federal officials -- gaps documented by probes of the period before the Sept. 2001 attacks, when some of the attackers were stopped by police for traffic violations or other reasons, and then released.
In July 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano called the fusion centers "a critical part of our nation's homeland security capabilities." About 70 of the centers now exist, located in major cities and nearly all states.
But in its blistering, bipartisan staff report released late Tuesday evening, the panel asserts that the centers -- which were financed by federal taxpayers with the express aim of helping the counter-terror effort -- frequently produced "shoddy, rarely timely" reports that in some cases violated civil liberties or privacy and often had little to do with terrorism.
"Most [relevant reports] were published months after they were received" from fusion centers in Washington, the subcommittee's 107-page account said. And only a fraction of all the reports dealt with terrorism, because no one in Washington forced the centers to stay focused on that topic. The fusion center in southern Nevada -- formally called a Counterterrorism Center -- mostly tracks school violence, according to the report.
"Despite reviewing 13 months' worth of reporting originating from fusion centers from April 1, 2009 to April 30, 2010, 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 document states. "DHS's involvement with fusion centers appeared not to have yielded timely, useful, terrorism-related intelligence for the federal intelligence community."
Matthew Chandler, a DHS spokesman, condemned the subcommittee's report in a prepared statement, calling it "out of date, inaccurate, and misleading." He also accused the investigators of refusing to review "relevant data," in an apparent reference to their decision not to read fusion centers' reports in classified form.
Chandler further asserted that the subcommittee, which closely scrutinized work produced by the centers in 2009 and 2010 and examined Bush and Obama administration policies through August of this year, had failed to understand that a key role for the centers is to "receive" intelligence information provided by the federal government, not just to produce it. Another Obama administration official, who declined to be identified, said the report "fails to reflect the totality of work done by fusion centers that directly supports our counter-terrorism efforts."