DHS officials blast congressional report

The Department of Homeland Security is trading barbs with top senators over a new congressional report that criticizes the agency for not using state and local fusion centers to produce more valuable counterterrorism intelligence reports.

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Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) issued the bipartisan report Tuesday night, concluding that DHS officials at the state and local fusion centers wasted taxpayer dollars by analyzing and relaying information that was either duplicative or not related to counterterrorism measures.

“The subcommittee investigation found that the fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever,” states the report, which was prepared by investigators on the Homeland Security Committee's Permanent subcommittee on Investigations (PSI).

Levin serves as chairman and Coburn, who initiated the investigation, is the ranking member of the PSI.

The 107-page report has significantly ruffled feathers within the administration and at least one senior Republican on Capitol Hill.

Department officials blasted its findings, saying that the report was highly misrepresentative and seriously flawed. They say congressional investigators looked at a narrow set of data that did not take into account a plethora of other intelligence-gathering tools associated with fusion centers.

“The committee report on federal support for fusion centers is out of date, inaccurate and misleading,” said Matt Chandler, a spokesman for DHS, in a statement.

“In preparing the report, the committee refused to review relevant data, including important intelligence information pertinent to their findings.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a statement Tuesday night criticizing the report for what her office described as “shortcomings.”

Collins said the report was too limited in scope, only looking at one direction of the intelligence information flow, and didn't account for the extensive successes fusion centers have reaped by producing Suspicious Activity Reports that have led to hundreds of FBI investigations.

Fusion centers were created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to serve as intelligence and information hubs that would connect state and local law enforcement officials with their federal counterparts. The aim was to share information between national and local counterterrorism officials in an effort to weave a tight web of intelligence and prevent future attacks.

The Senate investigation looked at 13 months of Homeland Intelligence Reports (HIRs) from 2009 to 2010 that were issued by DHS officials at some of the 77 state and local fusion centers.

But DHS officials say the subcommittee’s report should have also looked at fusion center reports and messages to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), the primary intelligence destination for highly critical terrorist activity because it is authorized to launch immediate investigations.

“They are looking at a very narrow set of activities, the HIR process,” a DHS official told The Hill, speaking on background because he was unauthorized to speak with the press.

“Instead of coming up with conclusions on that process alone, they’re using their observations from two years ago to support broad conclusions which I think, quite frankly, are wrong. To sit there and suggest that there’s no value that comes from fusion centers is just wrong.”

The report found that the department was unable to accurately account for how much taxpayer money was spent to support the fusion centers from 2003 to 2011. Total estimates ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion, according to the report.

The study also concluded that DHS did not adequately oversee how the local and state fusion centers spent the federal grant money, which is awarded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

But the DHS official said the reason for the broad range in total estimates was because the department does not micromanage the fusion centers. Instead, DHS gives the centers guidance and legal parameters for how the money can be spent, but the details are entrusted to the local and state officials on the ground.

“There’s a recognition that no one knows their state or city better than the officials who run it,” said the DHS official. “So they don’t need someone in Washington saying, ‘We think you should invest more in this operational activity versus this one.’

“Both Congress and the department believe strongly that you need to leave a certain level of autonomy to these state and local officials.”

The report also determined that many of the intelligence-gathering activities at the fusion centers that were included in the HIRs “endanger[ed] citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.”

The DHS official said that was an exaggeration, pointing to an array of safety mechanisms the department has put into place to guard against civil liberty violations. In addition to civil liberties training provided by DHS, the department reviews every HIR for privacy violations, which requires additional training for the officials responsible, the official said, adding that DHS reserves the right to cut off federal grant money to state and local fusion centers that violate civil liberties of Americans.