by James Bovard
February 3, 2017
The Future of Freedom Foundation

When it comes to mindless excess in the war on terror, it is difficult to compete with the 70+ fusion centers bankrolled by the Department of Homeland Security. They began to be set up around the nation shortly after 9/11 as federal-state-local partnerships to better track terrorist threats. But the centers have been a world-class boondoggle from the start.

Fusion centers have sent the federally funded roundup of data on Americans’ private lives into overdrive. As the Brennan Center for Justice noted in 2012, “Until 9/11, police departments had limited authority to gather information on innocent activity, such as what people say in their houses of worship or at political meetings. Police could only examine this type of First Amendment-protected activity if there was a direct link to a suspected crime. But the attacks of 9/11 led law enforcement to turn this rule on its head.”

Fusion centers do a far better job of stoking paranoia than of catching terrorists. Various fusion centers have attached the “extremist” tag to gun-rights activists, anti-immigration zealots, and individuals and groups “rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority” — even though many of the Founding Fathers shared the same creed. A 2012 DHS report went even further, stating that being “reverent of individual liberty” is one of the traits of potential right-wing terrorists. Such absurd standards help explain why the federal terrorist watchlist now contains more than a million names.

Federal management is so slipshod that a 2012 Senate investigation found that the federal estimates of spending on fusion centers varied by more than 400 percent — ranging from $289 million to $1.4 billion. A DHS internal report found that 4 of 72 fusion centers did not actually exist, but that did not deter DHS officials from continuing to exaggerate the number of such centers. The Washington Post highlighted a few of the dubious findings: “More than $2 million was spent on a center for Philadelphia that never opened. In Ohio, officials used the money to buy rugged laptop computers and then gave them to a local morgue. San Diego officials bought 55 flat-screen televisions to help them collect ‘open-source intelligence’ — better known as cable television news.”

A Senate investigation found that DHS intelligence officers at 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.” A Senate investigation found no evidence that the fusion centers had provided any assistance in detecting or disrupting any terrorist plots. Sen. Tom Coburn, who spearheaded the Senate investigation, observed, “Unfortunately, DHS has resisted oversight of these centers. The Department opted not to inform Congress or the public of serious problems plaguing its fusion center and broader intelligence efforts. When this Subcommittee requested documents that would help it identify these issues, the Department initially 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.”

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