Law enforcement officials in Austin are defending the use of “fusion centers,” some of which across the country were lambasted by a U.S. Senate subcommittee recently as spending wastefully, being intrusive into citizens’ private lives and producing information of little value for counterterrorism.
Austin is home to two such centers, the Police Department’s Austin Regional Intelligence Center and the Department of Public Safety’s Texas Fusion Center, both of which opened in late 2010. Fusion centers are designed to enable law enforcement agencies to pool and share information with one another.
Responding to the Senate criticism, DPS Director Steve McCraw said in a statement that the report is inaccurate because investigators did not get a large enough sample of how the nation’s 77 fusion centers operate.
“In fact, they did not visit even one of the seven fusion centers operating in Texas, including the state level fusion center,” McCraw said.
Assistant Police Chief David Carter, who oversees the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, said the Senate report mainly focused on fusion centers’ work in counter-terrorism. He said the Austin center was set up from the beginning with an “all crimes” approach and has proved useful in several investigations.While it's true no Texas fusion centers were named, a Texas report was chronicled on p. 33 (p. 39 of the pdf) as an exemplar of the type of a non-actionable HIRs [Homeland Information Reports] that fusion centers pass on to DHS which must be canceled by federal reviewers. So it's not at all accurate to claim the Senate subcommittee didn't closely evaluate the work of Texas fusion centers. Indeed, they studied Texas' work more than any other. From the subcommittee report:
As noted, the Subcommittee investigation reviewed every raw DHS intelligence report drafted on information from state and local fusion centers from April 1, 2009, to April 30, 2010....Contrary to Col McCraw's complaint, Texas' fusion center reporting was closely examined, making up a disproportionate share (32%, or 186 out of 574 unclassified draft reports) of the sample judged by the subcommittee.And how did we fare?
The Subcommittee investigation counted that, during that period, DHS intelligence officers at state and local fusion centers around the country filed 610 draft reports to DHS headquarters for dissemination. During that period, the draft HIRs came from fusion centers in just 31 states; fusion centers in 19 states generated no reports at all. In addition, the vast majority of the 574 unclassified draft reports filed came from DHS detailees assigned to fusion centers in just three states – Texas (186 drafts), California (141) and Arizona (89). Meanwhile, fusion centers in most other states produced little to no reporting.
Of the 574 unclassified draft reports field officers filed, the Subcommittee investigation counted 188 marked by DHS reviewers as cancelled, nearly a third. Reviewers recommending cancellation of drafts faulted the reports for lacking any useful information, for running afoul of departmental guidelines meant to guard against civil liberties or Privacy Act protections, or for having no connection to any of DHS’s many missions, among other reasons.To review: Texas provided the largest number of reports of any state in the dataset from which the subcommittee faulted fusion center reporting for "lacking any useful information, for running afoul of departmental guidelines meant to guard against civil liberties or Privacy Act protections, or for having no connection to any of DHS’s many missions, among other reasons." The subcommittee may not have named which specific Texas fusion centers published the most reports that were canceled by DHS reviewers - and granted, the two Austin fusion centers reportedly came on line after the period they analyzed - but they were definitely looking at Texas fusion centers' work product when they made those assessments, as either Col. McCraw or the reporter should have known from reading the report.
Of the 386 unclassified reports published, the Subcommittee investigation counted only 94 which related in some way to potential terrorist activity, or the activities of a known or suspected terrorist. Of those 94 reports, most were published months after they were received; more than a quarter appeared to duplicate a faster intelligence-sharing process administered by the FBI; and some were based on information drawn from publicly available websites or dated public reports. In one case, DHS intelligence officials appear to have published a report which drew from or repeated information in a Department of Justice press release published months earlier. In short, the utility of many of the 94 terrorism-related reports was questionable.
The Subcommittee investigation found that fusion center reporting that attempted to share terrorism-related information was more likely to be cancelled than reporting on other topics. While the overall cancellation rate of draft intelligence reports from fusion centers during the period of review was around 30 percent, the cancellation rate for reports which alleged or indicated a possible connection to terrorism had a higher cancellation rate – over 45 percent.
Speaking of which, it should be mentioned that, as if in direct response to Ast. Chief Carter's published remarks, the subcommittee report specifically discussed shortcomings of the "all crimes" approach that Austin PD endorses, lamenting that, “Most [fusion] centers focus on the priority mission of the law enforcement agency that owns/manages them; primarily analytical case support to drug, gang, and violent crime investigations for the geographic area of responsibility,” the report stated. “As a result many centers struggle to build the necessary capabilities required to support federal counterterrorism mission requirements, specifically in the areas of intelligence analysis and information sharing beyond their jurisdictions.” In a subsection titled, "DHS “Success Stories” Do Not Demonstrate Centers’ Value to Counterterrorism Efforts," the report made a point echoed in a recent Grits post:
On its web site, DHS has devoted a page to fusion center “success stories.” On that page, DHS includes many events unrelated to terrorism in a long list of fusion center “successes.” DHS praises, for example, fusion center efforts that have helped to reduce automobile thefts, apprehend a man suspected of kidnapping and rape, and bust up a drug ring
While those anticrime successes are notable, they do not advance the DHS counter terrorism mission; they do not fulfill the promise federal officials made to Congress and the public that the significant taxpayer support directed to fusion centers would aid in the fight against terror; and they do not meet the expectations set by legislative and executive mandates which make clear both branches expected fusion centers to perform as conduits of terrorism information-sharing to and from the federal government.The feds aren't funding fusion centers just to augment the state's local anti-crime work, in the view of the subcommittee, but based on metrics more at the direct service of federal counter-terrorism efforts. From that perspective, it's easy to see how an "all crimes" or "all hazards" focus of Texas fusion centers doesn't mitigate the Senate subcommittee's negative appraisal, it personifies it. Fusion centers have indulged in massive mission creep, is the federal criticism, and serve little if any anti-terrorism function. DPS and APD would respond, yeah, but we can use that money to go after our own, local bad guys, and when budget times weren't so tight, for years that was enough to justify the grants' rapid expansion. But in budget cutting times, fusion center funding looks like low-hanging fruit that's not fulfilling its mission, from a federal counter terrorism perspective.
Will federal budget cutters succeed in scaling back domestic surveillance, forging new political grounds where civil libertarian critics were too tepid to tread? That's my hope after reviewing the subcommittee report.
Either way, the report effectively rebuts the present claims by Col. McCraw and Ast Chief Carter in the Statesman story: Texas' work was analyzed along with everyone else's and in the end, criticisms in the report can't simply be dodged with claims that "we're different" or they"did not get a large enough sample." The comment about sample size was either uninformed or disingenuous: If anything, the main problem with the subcommittee's sample was that they looked at Texas fusion centers' work product perhaps a little too closely.
MORE: See, from Government Executive, "Defenders of fusion centers hit back at Senate panel criticisms."