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Commentary: Sen. Tom Coburn on Fusion Center Follies

Nov. 6, 2012 - 03:20PM   |  
By TOM COBURN   |   Comments
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Since the 9/11 attacks, Congress and the White House have invested hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in support of dozens of state and local fusion centers across the United States. After a two-year Senate investigation identified problems with nearly every aspect of the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement with these centers — including irrelevant, untimely or useless intelligence reporting to DHS, among other widespread deficiencies — there is a clear need for reform.

Since 2003, more than 70 state and local fusion centers, supported in part with federal funds, have been created or expanded to strengthen U.S. intelligence capabilities and detect, disrupt and respond to domestic terrorist activities. DHS’ support for and involvement with these centers has centered on their professed ability to strengthen federal counterterrorism efforts. However, as the investigation found, there are significant factors hindering this initial intent to connect the dots in the sharing of terrorism-related information among state, local and federal officials.

The investigation was undertaken by the permanent subcommittee on investigations of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. After the subcommittee reviewed more than a year’s worth of intelligence reporting from centers, one of the most troubling conclusions determined by its investigation is a disregard for fiscal accountability and inadequate concerns for privacy from senior DHS officials who are responsible for DHS’ work with the centers.

The investigation found DHS did not effectively monitor federal funds provided to state and local fusion centers. A review of the expenditures of five centers found federal funds were used to purchase dozens of flat-screen TVs, sport utility vehicles and surveillance equipment unrelated to the overall mission of these intelligence centers. In some instances, DHS officials were aware of problems hampering effective counterterrorism work by the fusion centers. However, they did not always inform Congress of the issues, nor ensure problems were addressed in a timely manner.

Additionally, DHS officials’ public claims about fusion centers were not always accurate. Despite reviewing 13 months worth of intelligence reporting, the subcommittee could identify no reporting that uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a significant contribution any fusion center made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.

Finally, DHS could not tell us how much money is spent on fusion centers. At a time when we are drowning in a $16 trillion national security threat, this is unacceptable. No federal agency should be unaware of how much money it has or how every dollar is spent. As former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen recently said: “The greatest threat to our national security is our debt.”

Some recommendations in the subcommittee’s report:

• Congress should clarify the purpose of providing federal monetary and other support for DHS’ fusion center efforts.

• DHS should reform its intelligence reporting efforts at state and local fusion centers to eliminate duplication.

• DHS should improve its training of intelligence reporters.

• DHS should track how much money it gives to each fusion center.

• DHS should link funding of each fusion center to its value and performance.

• DHS should align its practices and guidelines to protect civil liberties so they adhere to the constitution, federal law and DHS’ statutory mission.

The American people deserve better. I hope this report will help generate the reforms that will help keep our country safe. ?


Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is a medical doctor and the ranking minority member of the permanent subcommittee on investigations. The subcommittee’s report, “Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers,” is at subcommittees/investigations. This article originally appeared in C4ISR Journal.

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