Homeland Security Data Centers Produce 'Predominantly Useless Information'

Imagine having all the downsides of Big Brother, but with none of the benefits:  That's what you get with the Department of Homeland Security's vast network of "fusion" centers, according to a damning new report by the Senate's bipartisan Subcommittee on Investigations.

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Imagine having all the downsides of Big Brother and none of the benefits: That's what you get with the Department of Homeland Security's vast network of "fusion" centers, according to a damning new report by the Senate's bipartisan Subcommittee on Investigations.

The fusion centers, described by Janet Napolitano as "one of the centerpieces of our counterterrorism strategy," allegedly invade the privacy of Americans while producing "shoddy" reports that are typically "irrelevant" and "useless." It's the sort of report that will find a home on every Ron Paul fan forum and, according to reporters, with good reason: The 77 centers, which have cost an estimated $289 million to $1.4 billion, have a pretty questionable track record. Here are some of the more surprising elements journalists have dug up from the report:

Invasions of privacy. NBC News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff found some especially embarrassing reports about seemingly pointless surveillance of U.S. Muslims:

One fusion center drafted a report on a list of reading suggestions prepared by a Muslim community group, titled “Ten Book Recommendations for Every Muslim.” The report noted that four of the authors were listed in a terrorism database, but a Homeland Security reviewer in Washington chastised the fusion center,  saying, “We cannot report on books and other writings” simply because the authors are  in a terrorism database. “The writings themselves are protected by the First Amendment unless you can establish that something in the writing indicates planning or advocates violent or other criminal activity.”

Nothing to show for it. The centers are basically a home base for state, local and federal law enforcement officers to share data and coordinate, but the report found that the centers haven't uncovered a single terrorist threat between April 2009 and April 2010. Meanwhile, a lot was going on in the country, as Wired's Spencer Ackerman notes. "During that time, the FBI discovered would-be New York subway attacker Najibullah Zazi; U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane; and, in early May 2010, Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate an SUV in Times Square. DHS has praised the fusion centers’ work in helping on the Zazi and Shahzad cases. The Senate found fusion centers played little, if any, role in either case." In the report, an unnamed DHS official says the centers produce “predominantly useless information” that are “a bunch of crap.”

Arbitrary targets. The Huffington Post's Michael McAuliff rounds up some of the strangest targets of DHS scrutiny:

Beyond being useless, some reports are downright embarrassing. One that never saw the light of day wrote how a pair of men were fishing in a suspicious fashion on a reservoir that spanned the U.S.-Mexico border. Another worried that the notorious Mongols Motorcycle Club -- recently busted in a major federal operation -- had printed pamphlets for members advising them to be courteous to police in traffic stops, to properly care for their vehicles, and to designate a sober driver. About 40 of the reports the committee examined were blocked because of potential infringement on liberties. One report was focused on a document that was entitled “Ten Book Recommendations for Every Muslim.”

Additionally, Isikoff points to a particularly silly instance in which a fusion center report expressed caution that a model car had folding rear seats, "a feature that it said could be useful to human traffickers." In response, a Homeland Security official chided the official saying folding rear seats are "featured on MANY different  makes and model of vehicles” and “there is nothing of any intelligence value in this report.”

Not focusing on terrorism. According to Ackerman, "Some fusion centers simply don’t care about terrorism." He cites a survey of 63 fusion centers that found that "more than one third of them, 25, didn’t even 'mention terrorism in their mission statements.' Instead, they take federal anti-terrorism money and use it to supplement local law-enforcement priorities like fighting drugs, under the pretext that terrorists 'would commit precursor crimes before an attack.'"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.