WASHINGTON -- A marquee federal effort to share intelligence about terror threats with state and local law enforcers has produced no evidence of any. But it does appear to have caught a motorcycle gang telling members to obey laws, suspicious fishing at the border, and Muslims offering advice on marriage, success and reading.
That's according to a report by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee released Tuesday evening that found the work of some 77 U.S. "Fusion Centers" launched since 2003 have been fraught with troubles -- including trampling constitutionally protected activities -- while the Department of Homeland Security cannot even say how much has been spent on the effort.
According to the report, DHS estimates for cost ranged from $289 million to $1.4 billion. The costs may be even higher, the report said.
In spite of the expense of the fusion centers, the report said it could "identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot."
The probe by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations lasted more than two years and reviewed 610 homeland information reports produced by the fusion centers. Of them, 188 were squelched by DHS reviewers because they are useless or may have broken rules meant to guard civil liberties, the report said.
Of the ones forwarded to the borader intelligence community, most had nothing to do with terrorism or were too slow to be of use. Some may have violated privacy laws, were cribbed from newspapers or federal agency press releases, and some duplicated work done much faster by the FBI or National Counterterrorism Center.
"DHS-assigned detailees to the centers forwarded 'intelligence' of uneven quality -– oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism," concluded the authors of the bipartisan report led by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
The subcommittee said numerous current and former officials involved fusion centers also found them lacking.
“A lot of [the reporting] was predominantly useless information,” one former official told committee investigators after working for the "Reporting Branch" of Intelligence and Analysis unit of the DHS from 2006 to 2010. “You had a lot of data clogging the system with no value."
Another former official estimated 85 percent of reports were “not beneficial” to anyone, the report said.
Beyond being useless, some reports are downright embarrassing.
One that never saw the light of day wrote how a pair of men were fishing in a suspicious fashion on a reservoir that spanned the U.S.-Mexico border. Another worried that the notorious Mongols Motorcycle Club -- recently busted in a major federal operation -- had printed pamphlets for members advising them to be courteous to police in traffic stops, to properly care for their vehicles, and to designate a sober driver. About 40 of the reports the committee examined were blocked because of potential infringement on liberties.
One report was focused on a document that was entitled “Ten Book Recommendations for Every Muslim.” Another DHS intelligence officer filed an item on a U.S. citizen who, the report said "was appearing at a Muslim organization to deliver a day-long motivational talk and a lecture on positive parenting."
The rejection of the latter report was blunt. “Intelligence personnel are not authorized to collect information regarding [U.S. persons] solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the U.S. Constitution,” the report recounted.
Another report by an investigator focused on a lecturer who once ran an Islamic school that was mentioned in a terrorism database. The investigator's would-be intelligence report highlighted the subject's participation in a daylong seminar on marriage.
In blocking that "intelligence," one DHS official declared “the number of things that scare me about this report are almost too many to write" and included the constitutionally protected rights to free speech, assembly and religion. It also offered no evidence.
Not all the embarrassing reports were blocked. On Nov. 13, 2009, DHS circulated a homeland information report, reaching as high as the White House situation room, that warned that terrorist leader Anwar Al-Awlaki was praising the Fort Hood shootings on his blog from Yemen. That might have been useful information, except the Los Angeles Times, ABC News and other news outlets had reported on the information four days earlier.
According to the subcommittee study, the author of that report later received an evaluation of "Achieved Excellence" from bosses who recommend him for promotion, citing the cribbed media stories as "a signature accomplishment."
Also, there appeared to be little penalty for agents who overstepped their authority.
"The DHS officials who filed useless, problematic or even potentially illegal reports generally faced no sanction for their actions, according to documents and interviews," the Senate committee found. "Supervisors spoke with them about their errors, but those problems were not noted on the reporting officials’ annual performance reviews. ... In fact, the subcommittee investigation was able to identify only one case in which an official with a history of serious reporting issues faced any consequences for his mistakes -- he was required to attend an extra week of reporting training."
The senators' report echoes the fears of a separate report issued last month by the Constitution Project, which warned that because the fusion centers are so poorly organized and ill-defined that they pose a high risk of violating Americans' civil liberties while providing little useful information.
Matthew Chandler, a DHS spokesman, did not answer HuffPost requests for a better estimate of the fusion centers' cost, or point to any terror cases that they have helped to combat.
He did offer a broad general defense of the centers, noting that they also help combat other crimes and serve as a conduit for intelligence to flow to local agencies as well as guarding against terrorism. Here is Chandler's statement:
The committee report on federal support for fusion centers is out of date, inaccurate and misleading. In preparing the report, the committee refused to review relevant data, including important intelligence information pertinent to their findings.
The report fundamentally misunderstands the role of the federal government in supporting fusion centers and overlooks the significant benefits of this relationship to both state and local law enforcement and the federal government. Among other benefits, fusion centers play a key role by receiving classified and unclassified information from the federal government and assessing its local implications, helping law enforcement on the frontlines better protect their communities from all threats, whether it is terrorism or other criminal activities.
The Department of Homeland Security supports fusion centers, working in coordination with other federal partners, through training, technical assistance, technology and grant funding, as well as the deployment of DHS intelligence officers who work side-by-side with fusion center personnel to assess threats and share information. Homeland security begins with hometown security, and fusion centers play a vital role in keeping communities safe all across America.”
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.