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Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn questions effectiveness of Homeland Security 'fusion centers'

by Phillip O'Connor Published: October 22, 2012

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The Department of Homeland Security has called the investigation's findings “out-of-date, inaccurate and misleading,” and said many of the problems the inquiry identified have been addressed.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.

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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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