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

by Phillip O'Connor Published: October 22, 2012

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.”

‘Mission creep'

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.”

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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