The truthfulness of a controversial congressional investigative report looking into DHS support for fusion centers became a point of debate between a DHS lawyer and an ACLU representative during a homeland security panel discussion Wednesday.
WASHINGTON -- The truthfulness of a controversial congressional investigative report released this fall, which savaged the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) support for state and local intelligence fusion centers, became a point of debate between a DHS lawyer and an ACLU representative during a homeland security panel discussion Wednesday.
“The chairman and the ranking member of the full committee as well as the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee have all repudiated the report,” said Seth Grossman, deputy general counsel at DHS, referring to Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and their House counterpart, Chairman Peter King (R-NY).
In October, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a scathing bipartisan report that harshly criticized DHS’s involvement with fusion centers, which bring together law enforcement and intelligence personnel from state, local, and federal agencies to collect, analyze, vet, and disseminate intelligence to partners at all levels of government.
The investigation "found that DHS-assigned detailees to the fusion centers forwarded '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.” The report’s overall conclusion was devastating: “DHS's work with those state and local fusion centers has not produced useful intelligence to support Federal counterterrorism efforts.”
Michael German, a senior policy counsel for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, pushed back against Grossman attempt to delegitimize the report, stating Lieberman, Collins, and King’s criticized it because it made them look bad.
“What the report shows is that the oversight is inadequate,” he said, a position the ACLU has long taken. Further defending the report’s legitimacy, German also noted that many of the its conclusions were drawn from interviews with current and former DHS officials and analysts with fusion center experience.
The discussion occurred during an event, co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the Open Society Foundations, assessing DHS’s performance after 10 years of existence.
German also said that numerous other institutions and think tanks besides the ACLU have criticized or questioned the effectiveness of fusion centers, such as The Heritage Foundation, The George Washington Homeland Security Policy Institute, and the Constitution Project.
“This shows that those internal oversight mechanisms are not as effective as they need to be,” he added.
Another contention German made was that DHS doesn’t properly determine whether a program is effective before they spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money on it. According to the subcommittee fusion center report, DHS estimates it has spent between $289 million and $1.4 billion on the intelligence shops. The investigation found that fusion centers receiving federal funds used the money to purchase flat-screen TVs, sports utility vehicles, and “shirt button” cameras, none of which enhances a center’s ability to do intelligence work.
“If it’s not effective, don’t do it,” German said. “I’m sure these police departments and cities and towns would rather have more police officers on the streets than 55 flat-screen TVs in fusion centers.”
The panel discussion also examined other homeland security areas, including cybersecurity, immigration, and the department’s overall performance since it was established ten years ago last Sunday.
Jamil Jaffer, senior counsel at the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called on Congress to reconcile different cybersecurity bills and pass cybersecurity legislation.
“The perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” he said, stressing that the United States is under constant cyberattack, primarily from China. Therefore Congress must act before something truly devastating happens. “Crisis,” Jaffer warned, “makes for bad legislation.”
The discussion surrounding DHS’s tenth anniversary wasn’t all doom and gloom, however.
DHS, currently the third largest department within the federal government, has become a much more efficient and targeted organization under the Obama administration, eschewing one-size-fits-all solutions, Grossman said. He pointed to the Southwest border as a change, noting the Bush administration’s support for a border fence that critics called impracticable.
“This administration moved to a more targeted approach where we have different kinds of personnel, technology, and other resources depending on what made sense for that area of the border,” he said. “In our view, border security is at its highest level in over 50 years.”
Wendy Patten , a senior policy analyst working on immigration issues at the Open Society Foundation, tempered Grossman’s analysis and cautioned against using immigration policy as a counterterrorism tool. “You have the issue of targeting full communities,” she said, referencing the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).
Suspended in 2011 , the most controversial part of NSEERs required all males 16 years or older visiting the United States on temporary nonimmigrant visas from certain countries, overwhelmingly Muslim, to register with local immigration offices. According to the American Immigration Council, not one terrorist was identified and apprehended through the NSEERs program.
Despite criticism from the panelists, Grossman believes better days are ahead for the department. DHS “will continue to build upon the progress we’ve made on a lot fronts,” he said, assuring the audience that the department is “constantly looking for ways to improve the programs we have.”
♦ Photo courtesy of the American Constiution Society