So concludes a recent Senate report on the government’s federal-state-local intelligence sharing program established in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In what can hardly be described as a bipartisan season, the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee came to a bipartisan conclusion: a damning indictment of a program it says has spied on Americans and produced little if any useful intelligence on terrorism.
“The subcommittee investigation could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat,” the report said, “nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”
Yet this is a line-item albatross taxpayers could be stuck with for the foreseeable future. Like much Pentagon spending, it has become less about keeping Americans safe than about bolstering regional economies. Just as lawmakers give political cover to unnecessary or obsolete defense systems in their districts for reasons that have nothing to do with defense, state and local governments have used millions in federal Homeland Security money for things that have nothing to do with homeland security.
How many millions? Well, that’s another part of the problem — nobody seems to know for sure. The Department of Homeland Security puts it at somewhere between $300 million and $1.4 billion. Pick a number.
That money, whatever the mystery sum turns out to be, has bought such things as flat-screen TVs and a couple of high-end SUVs for commuting. Local fusion centers have been collecting information on both abortion rights and anti-abortion activists, Ron Paul supporters, war protesters, the ACLU and Second Amendment advocates. One local center cited in the Senate report targeted American citizens talking to Muslim groups about parenting.
Amassing information about First Amendment-protected activities that have nothing to do with crime is flagrantly unconstitutional.
As an Associated Press report on the Senate committee noted, Congress bears its own share of the blame. The legislation for providing grant money is so lacking in accountability control that even local homeland security offices not squandering federal money on cars and TVs sometimes use it to process information on ordinary crimes totally unrelated to terrorism.
The idea of joining forces against terrorism was sound, and still is. And the vast majority of state and local governments getting federal homeland security grants probably don’t abuse the money or their authority.
But as the Senate report notes, the government has failed to provide “sufficient oversight to ensure the intelligence from fusion centers is commensurate with the level of federal investment.”
Too much money and too much abuse for too little public benefit. Too familiar.