While it might not have disrupted any terrorist plots, supporters say a controversial state intelligence-gathering center based in Oklahoma City has proved an effective crime-fighting tool.
“It's just another layer of security to make sure nothing falls through the cracks,'' said Kim Edd Carter, director of the state's homeland security office.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help establish more than 70 such “fusion centers” throughout the country.
The idea was for the centers to serve as a domestic information-sharing network that would help local, state and federal law enforcement agencies better collaborate to prevent a future attack.
But a two-year bipartisan investigation by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released earlier this month questions the value of such centers saying they've provided irrelevant, useless or inappropriate information that, in some instances, threatened people's Constitutional rights.
The investigation found that U.S. Department of Homeland Security employees assigned to the fusion centers “forwarded ‘intelligence' of uneven quality — sometimes 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.”
The investigation also found that DHS officials made inaccurate claims about fusion centers, asserting some existed when they did not, overstating their success stories and failing to disclose or acknowledge internal DHS evaluations that had identified many problems with the centers and the department's own operations.
“It's troubling that the very ‘fusion' centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem,” U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, said in a news release at the time of the report's release.
“Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans' civil liberties.”
Coburn, the subcommittee's ranking member, initiated the investigation.
The Department of Homeland Security has called the investigation's findings “out-of-date, inaccurate and misleading,” and said many of the problems the inquiry identified have been addressed. The full Senate committee denounced the findings and said fusion centers played a significant role in several terrorism cases.
Oklahoma officials pointed out that many of the investigation's criticisms are aimed at problems within the federal department and not relevant to the Oklahoma center.
And they noted that the report acknowledged that fusion centers provide valuable nonterrorism-related information that can be used for criminal investigations, public safety matters, disaster response or recovery efforts.
The report, however, sought to examine the return on the federal government's extensive investment to support the fusion centers' antiterrorism objectives. By that measure, the investigation found the program seriously wanting.
‘Prevent another Murrah Building'
Gov. Brad Henry created the Oklahoma Information Fusion Center by executive order in 2007.
Of the $216 million in federal homeland security funds Oklahoma has received, almost $6.9 million has been allocated to help pay for fusion center operations.
The center, which opened in 2008, is housed at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation headquarters in north Oklahoma City.
The center consists of several offices, conference rooms and a small “secure room,” where secret information can be received. OSBI is mandated to manage the center and picks up much of the center's overhead costs including rent and utilities.
The subcommittee investigation chided some centers for inappropriately using federal grant money to pay rent.
The investigation also criticized some centers for buying expensive sport utility vehicles, dozens of flat-screen televisions and hidden cameras, cellphone tracking devices other surveillance equipment unrelated to the centers' analytical mission.
No such large-ticket purchases were made in Oklahoma, officials said. Instead, most of the fusion center money goes to pay the salaries of several analysts. Four analysts are located at OSBI headquarters, two with the Tulsa Police Department, two with the Oklahoma City Police Department and one each at the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, the Norman Police Department and the state homeland security office.
Fusion center money also pays for computers, software, databases and other office equipment as well as training for the analysts.
Capt. Pat Byrne, commander of the Oklahoma City Police Department's criminal intelligence unit, said the fusion center provided “timely, accurate and actionable information and intelligence so that we can provide that information to our officers who, in turn, know what the indicators are and know what to look for.”
While the Oklahoma fusion center's primary focus remains to prevent terrorism, the majority of the requests the center handles are from law enforcement officials seeking access to the center's databases or assistance in criminal investigations, said director David Stenhouse.
A federal employee assigned to the center has forwarded only one formal report to the Department of Homeland Security involving a potential terrorist threat. But Stenhouse said while such reports may not go through formal channels to DHS in Washington, the center routinely shares any potential threat information with appropriate agencies, including the FBI and the local joint terrorism task force.
“Job one for us is to prevent another attack in Oklahoma … to prevent another Murrah building or to identify someone who is in our state that would do us harm,'' Stenhouse said, referring to the downtown Oklahoma City federal building destroyed by a domestic terrorist in 1995.
“Obviously, significant criminal organizations or criminals that would prey on the citizens of our state, we're looking out for those and sharing that information as well.”
Carter, the state homeland security chief, said the center provides law enforcement with a much-needed capability to gather and analyze data.
“We have so much information that comes to us from so many places that you need someone to sift through the information and try to make sense of it,” Carter said.
That means reading countless reports, looking for trends and key pieces of information. Leaving that to local law enforcement takes away from time they can spend on the street.
“It's not the fusion center's job to go out and stop a terrorist event. That's law enforcement's role,” Carter said. “(The center's) job is to look for those trends … and try to give situational awareness to officers.”
Such centers have raised privacy concerns and fears of government spying among groups at both ends of the political spectrum.
“There's been a long history in this country of police abusing their intelligence gathering authority to spy on people such as activists, immigrants and politicians,'' said Mike German, senior policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
He said the investigation identified troubling shortcomings in the current fusion center program.
“Even with strong oversight, Congress was not able to get a clear picture of what was going on,'' German said. “It's a huge gap that sort of highlights the concerns that were expressed about the secrecy surrounding these institutions.”
Amanda Teegarden, of Oklahomans for Sovereignty and Free Enterprise, said the report echoed concerns the group first expressed in 2009 about the Oklahoma center.
“You could see where these things were headed,” said Teegarden, executive director of the Tulsa-based nonprofit which supports mostly conservative activities.
“The temptation to abuse all the authority given to them was great. That's a big temptation — to use it beyond what the talking points said it was for.”
Teegarden said the “barriers have fallen” on the government's ability to collect and store the private information of innocent individuals.
Both Teegarden and German also criticized what they called the “mission creep” of such fusion centers away from the antiterrorism activities for which they were created into all-hazards reporting centers.
“Because they couldn't point to successes they started describing their mission in a much broader and generalized way and that made it even more difficult to know if they were successful,'' German said.
“You can't really measure that and that's really part of the problem. You have this institution soaking up a bunch of funds and the potential for violating privacy rights is enormous.”