Counterterrorism "Fusion Centers" Threaten Civil Liberties

Last week, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a two-year bipartisan report (PDF) of 141 pages concluding that the 70 state and local intelligence “fusion centers” have not produced significant, useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts.

Nevada has a primary Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center in Las Vegas, and also at least one secondary facility, the Nevada Threat Analysis Center in Carson City. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department generally likes to show off the Las Vegas center, and public relations rhetoric has specifically boasted that Las Vegas’s center is a “model for public-private collaboration.”

We don’t know enough about the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center to know for sure whether it has done the same job, a better job, or a worse job than other fusion centers around the country in producing actionable intelligence to fight terrorism. That no terrorism has occurred here might be used by some others as evidence that our fusion center is effective. But that same lack of terrorist incidents may mean, at the least, that an anti-terrorism-oriented fusion center in Las Vegas has not been necessary, and may also mean that it is not, and will not be, truly necessary.

The Senate report mentions the Las Vegas center once, apparently as a specific example of a fusion center that is devoting resources to a marginal purpose: 

As state and local entities, the exact missions of individual fusion centers are largely beyond the authority of the Federal Government to determine. Many have chosen to focus their efforts on local and regional crime. In Nevada, the Southern Nevada Counterterrorism Center tracks incidents of violence in schools. However, Federal officials and lawmakers established Federal grant programs for the centers premised primarily on involving fusion centers in Federal efforts to prevent another terrorist attack.

Perhaps the Senate noting that Las Vegas’s center tracks school violence is a “cheap shot” (or perhaps not). In any case, one working assumption by Nevada’s Homeland Security Commission last year was that Las Vegas is, or soon will be, a terrorist target merely because Las Vegas is Las Vegas. In turn, that is clearly based on Commission members’ assumptions that they know how terrorists think (apparently about the tourists and/or sin in Sin City), and that if they were terrorists themselves, they would target Las Vegas. That confidence is absurd on its face. And, except for a few countries in which terrorists routinely try to disrupt daily life (such as Israel), it also is contrary to terrorism’s, post-1976 Olympics worldwide history, which has almost entirely preferred acts that target political or military sites or figures or will immediately have national or international political effects. By those measures, Las Vegas is simply not important enough.

The Senate is concerned that: the Department of Homeland Security, since 2003, has spent somewhere between $283 million and $1.4 billion on fusion centers, no one can come up with a more specific figure, and, essentially, at least $283 million has apparently been just about wasted on anti-terrorism spending that didn’t fight terrorism.

Merely monitoring, discovering, or publicizing wasteful government spending is not within the ACLU’s mission, but as Senator Tom Coburn said, “Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they [fusion centers] have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.” The ACLU also is concerned with excessive government secrecy, and Sen. Coburn complained that the Department of Homeland Security even impeded the Committee’s investigation, saying of needed documents that DHS “resisted turning them over, arguing that they were protected by privilege, too sensitive to share, were protected by confidentiality agreements, or did not exist at all.”

The Committee’s official press release adds, “The investigation found that DHS intelligence officers assigned to state and local fusion centers produced intelligence of ‘uneven quality – 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.’”

Unfortunately, wasting huge amounts of money and staff time on supposed anti-terrorist efforts that accomplishes little besides violating Americans’ privacy, lining the pockets of private contractors, and distracting all of us from real threats now is now standard. TSA agents routinely miss weapons and simulated weapons at airports. The FBI, unable to arrest actual terrorists in the US because the FBI doesn’t know where they are, if they exist at all, apparently now devotes massive resources to convincing gullible citizens that they can be and should be terrorists, educating them about and supplying them with simulated weapons, and then – having orchestrated everything – arrest their entrapment victim for conspiracy to commit terrorism. And these fusion centers apparently aren’t accomplishing much of anything. (Meanwhile, the USA still has poorly protected borders and shores, amazingly vulnerable ports, etc.)

Why is all of this happening? Fear and paranoia of some public officials and some citizens. Greed and job preservation efforts among private contractors, and more job preservation efforts among public employees. And, it appears, both technological utopianism (the belief that high tech will solve all problems) and technological determinism (high tech must be used because it can be) at the same historical moment that the CIA, FBI, and much of the rest of federal law enforcement are apparently less able than ever (or at least in a long time) to even understand, let alone infiltrate, authentic terrorist organizations in the USA (if there are any) that pose a credible threat (as opposed to being dim-witted wannabes).

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