A devastating new report that found homeland security officials have wasted perhaps billions of dollars on intelligence-gathering complexes known as fusion centers that haven't detected a single terrorist threat, even as they invaded citizens' privacy, could present another political headache for one of their biggest advocates: Mitt Romney.
Romney played a pivotal role in promoting the establishment of these counterterrorism centers across the country to "connect the dots" and stave off another 9/11, as The Huffington Post reported in May. In his role as chairman of a national task force on intelligence sharing, the then-Massachusetts governor used his bully pulpit to call for a nationwide network that would meld together local, state and federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to detect threats.
At a New Hampshire town hall meeting during his first run for president, Romney, who as governor had opened two of the country's first fusion centers, explained enthusiastically what they were all about (see video above):
"We put together something called a fusion center, and what we do is take crime information from all over the state and it goes to one place -- it happens to be in our case the state police in Massachusetts. And we look at the patterns and determine if there are people -- gangs in particular, organized crime and terror, potential terror networks -- that are working throughout our state or throughout our regions, and we're sharing information I know with New Hampshire and other states on a regional basis to help identify, if you will, patterns of violence that suggest groups that are organizing criminal activity. And that's something. We need to be a little smarter than we used to be. We have technology, we have the eyes and ears of all our citizens. We need to collect the information we get to make sure we are using that information to crack down on crime in a very significant way."
In 2004, Romney told Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and members of the federal Homeland Security Advisory Council that other states should follow Massachusetts' lead and set up fusion centers. "We have to be able to find the bad guys before they carry out their acts, and that can only be done through intelligence," he said. "The financial resources of our nation and our states should be increasingly devoted to this effort.''
"He was definitely instrumental in laying the intellectual framework for fusion centers and the role of state and local law enforcement in domestic counterterrorism and the need for clear guidelines concerning state and local domestic intelligence gathering," Joshua Filler, director of the Department of Homeland Security's Office of State and Local Government Coordination from 2003 to 2005, told HuffPost this past spring.
Romney's rosy view of fusion centers back then contrasts sharply with the findings of a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee investigation released Tuesday. The scathing report details a long list of failures at the nation's fusion centers, which now number more than 70.
The two-year probe, which looked at the centers' work in 2009 and 2010, 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," although the centers did pick up chatter about suspicious fishing on the U.S.-Mexico border and a positive parenting talk given to a Muslim group. The investigation found that analysts at the Department of Homeland Security often dismissed reports from the field as useless, some of them little more than crib notes from local media.
Senate investigators reported that department officials could not account for as much as $1.4 billion that had been slated for the fusion centers, some of which investigators found existed only on paper.
The Department of Homeland Security has disputed the report, calling it "out of date, inaccurate and misleading."
Yet the report, which was endorsed by both Democratic and Republican senators, is the second in less than a month to question the value of fusion centers. On Sept. 11, the nonpartisan Constitution Project warned that the intelligence-gathering centers have threatened civil liberties while offering little if any bang for the taxpayers' bucks.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in an email to HuffPost that the report confirms that "fusion spying centers do not keep us safe but, instead, waste billions of tax dollars, violate civil liberties of ordinary Americans, and utterly fail to stop terrorists."
Noting that then-Gov. Romney had issued an executive order setting up the Commonwealth Fusion Center "without any public debate or hearings," Rose said he led the way in urging other governors to follow suit.
Despite his leadership on the fusion centers and homeland security generally as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has spoken little about the subject during his current presidential bid. His campaign website doesn't even have a page for homeland security issues.
But an October 2011 campaign white paper said that a Romney administration "will charge our federal agencies not only with designing better frameworks to share intelligence 'horizontally' among themselves, but also with redoubling their efforts to work with state and local authorities to share intelligence 'vertically.' Our counterterrorism professionals will need to continue to develop 'fusion centers' and other innovative systems to collect and systematically analyze information about domestic activities."
The Romney campaign said the report has nothing to do with the GOP presidential nominee because it slammed the operation of the fusion centers since Barack Obama became president.
"What this report demonstrates is a failure on the part of the Obama Administration to effectively deploy counterterrorism resources in protection of our nation. Gov. Romney believes that intelligence on terrorist threats must be appropriately collected, properly analyzed, and promptly acted upon. In mismanaging intelligence fusion centers, the Obama administration has failed on a key part of this job," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Perhaps then the fusion-center report will prompt questions for both Romney and Obama, as they prepare for the debate stage Wednesday night.
P.J. Crowley, a former Obama administration State Department spokesman, is doubtful. "There will be little impact," he said in an email. "The report questions both execution at the local level and oversight at the federal level. I doubt either candidate will want to touch the issue."
Whether inside or outside the debate hall, the report may at least raise the issue of what Romney would do about the troubled fusion centers today and whether he would add them to his promised $500 billion in federal spending cuts if elected president.
"I'd love to hear what Governor Romney thinks about the fusion center experience," Heather Hurlburt of the progressive National Security Network told HuffPost via email. "I don't believe he has put forward a homeland security policy -- he's not discussed the topic in speeches or debates. Like most of his Massachusetts record, he hasn't seemed anxious to run on or even discuss his homeland security policies as governor. It'd be a fair question for the debate tonight."
Rose of the Massachusetts ACLU agreed: "Given Governor Romney's role in launching these boondoggles -- and President Obama's decision to keep funding them -- both presidential candidates should be asked tonight whether and why they would continue to waste billions of our scarce tax dollars on state fusion spying centers that don't keep us safe but do undermine the right of ordinary Americans to be free from government snooping without a warrant."
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