Lawmakers spar over quality of Homeland Security intel efforts

The chairmen of the Senate and House homeland security panels on Wednesday bashed a new report by their colleagues that is critical of intelligence gathering efforts at fusion centers.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said a report issued by Sens. Carl LevinCarl LevinCongress: The sleeping watchdog Congress must not give companies tax reasons to move jobs overseas A lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies MORE (D-Mich.) and Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnFormer GOP senator: Trump has a personality disorder Lobbying World -trillion debt puts US fiscal house on very shaky ground MORE (R-Okla.) fails to back up the claims it makes about the ineptitude of state and local fusion centers.

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“I strongly disagree with the report’s core assertion that ‘fusion centers have been unable to meaningfully contribute to federal counterterrorism efforts,’” Lieberman said on Wednesday.

“This statement is not supported by the examples presented in the report and is contrary to the public record, which shows fusion centers have played a significant role in many recent terrorism cases and have helped generate hundreds of tips and leads that have led to current 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.

Local and state officials that staff the fusion centers are in charge of relaying suspicious activity in their communities to federal officials who then attempt to use that information to create a broader and more thorough picture of terrorist activity. 

Federal officials are in charge of giving local and state officials at the fusion centers access to terrorist activity or communications on a national level that could help them prevent attacks in their communities. 

But concern over the fusion centers has been prevalent on Capitol Hill since they were created under the George W. Bush administration. Lawmakers have primarily worried about whether the federal money given to centers is properly overseen and spent, and whether the civil liberties of Americans are being protected by the fusion centers in their intelligence gathering efforts.

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

"The ... investigation found that the fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever,” the report found. 

The 107-page report, released Tuesday night, has caused a stir in Washington D.C. and among law enforcement organizations throughout the country. 

The report's critics object to the conclusion 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 measure.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids Study: ObamaCare bills backed by Collins would lower premiums Right scrambles GOP budget strategy MORE (R-Maine), the Senate homeland security committee’s ranking Republican, slammed the report for containing what her office described as numerous “shortcomings.”

Collins’s office 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.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, echoed both Lieberman and Collins’ criticisms of the report, saying that it failed to provide a full picture of the intelligence gathering operations at fusion centers.

“I agree with Chairman Joe Lieberman and Ranking Member Susan Collins that the subcommittee report issued this week paints with too broad a brush an incomplete picture that fails to recognize many of the important contributions that fusion centers have made in securing our homeland,” said King in a statement.

King added that his committee is in the final stages of its own investigative review of fusion centers that is expected to be released in the next several weeks. 

The dispute is amplified, particularly in the upper chamber, by the fact that Levin serves as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and Coburn, who initiated the investigation, is the ranking member. The subcommittee falls under the jurisdiction of Lieberman's homeland security panel. 

Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE (R-Ky.) were among a handful of lawmakers who voiced their support for the study on Wednesday. McCain said it was a prime example of why the DHS should not be entrusted with additional homeland security tasks, such as cybersecurity.

“[The report] found a remarkable degree of ineffectiveness, ineptitude and waste in this intelligence-sharing initiative on which the federal government has spent $1.4 billion to date,” said McCain.

“This report should make clear why I and many of my colleagues are unwilling to entrust the [DHS] with the vital task of protecting our nation’s cybersecurity.”

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.

Paul said the report's most alarming finding was that the fusion centers attempted to violate the civil liberty protections of some U.S. citizens as they gathered intelligence to include in the HIR's. 

“Of utmost concern is the fact that fusion centers have engaged in activities that violate Americans’ privacy rights and civil liberties," said Paul in a statement. "I thoroughly support the efforts of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to shed light on these serious problems, and I commend the subcommittee for its efforts.”

But examples of actual civil liberty violations are not depicted in the report. Instead the Senate investigation cites several examples of fusion center operators alerting their federal counterparts to suspicious activity, such as an American with suspicious allegiances speaking at a mosque or a motorcycle gang handing out pamphlets advising members what to do if harassed by police. 

If authorities had taken action on the information sent to them from the fusion centers, then that would have violated civil rights protections. But the Senate report's examples of violations deal solely with information that was publicly available to fusion center operators. 

DHS immediately rejected the report’s findings, saying it was highly misrepresentative and seriously flawed. Department officials say congressional investigators looked at a narrow set of data that did not take into account a range of other intelligence-gathering tools associated with fusion centers.

In a separate statement released on Wednesday a bevy of local and state law enforcement organizations issued a joint statement decrying the methodology of the investigation and its findings.

“Simply put, the report displays a fundamental disconnect and severe misunderstanding of the federal government’s role in supporting state and locally owned and operated fusion centers and the critical role that fusion centers play in the national counterterrorism effort,” the group said in a statement.

The group included the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, the Major County Sheriffs Association, the National Governors Association Homeland Security Advisors Council, the National Narcotics Officers Coalitions Association, the National Fusion Center Association, and the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies.

One of the only findings of the report that Lieberman lauded was 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.

Updated at 6:35 p.m. and 7 p.m.