Fusion confusion E-mail
Written by Jose Torres   

After 9/11/2001, both federal and local law enforcement went on an unprecedented spending spree. Due to the general consensus that the attacks were the result of poor intelligence, officials embarked on the creation of a national network of “fusion centers,” that would allow seamless communications between local and federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and military entities. Now that the system has been up and running for a number of years, people are starting to ask the inevitable question, “what did we get for all that money?”

As is usually the case with the intersection of public safety and homeland security it depends on whom you ask.

A Senate subcommittee recently alleged that fusion centers are not only incredibly expensive, they also run afoul of constitutional protections of privacy while producing almost nothing in terms of actionable intelligence about terrorism.

But according to a recent article in the Austin American Statesman, law enforcement officials in Austin are defending the use of “fusion centers,” as a critical spoke in the wheel of public safety.

Austin has two fusion centers- the Austin P.D.’s Austin Regional Intelligence Center and the Department of Public Safety’s Texas Fusion Center.

Responding to the committee’s criticism, DPS Director Steve McCraw said in a statement that the report is inaccurate.

“In fact, they did not visit even one of the seven fusion centers operating in Texas, including the state level fusion center,” McCraw told reporters.

Assistant Police Chief David Carter, who oversees the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, said the Senate report mainly focused on fusion centers’ work in counterterrorism- which most agree has been a total bust.

But Carter says the Austin center was set up from the beginning with an “all crimes” approach and has proved very useful in several investigations.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations looked at reports produced by fusion centers between April 2009 and April 2010. The group examined reports from fusion centers across the country, which were established after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with the goal of preventing similar incidents.

The committee’s report said the centers produced intelligence that was “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.”

In addition, the report noted that the investigation into fusion center expenditures found that federal grant money was spent on souped-up SUVs, flat-screen TVs, surveillance equipment and other items “unrelated to the analytical mission of a fusion center.”

The report also lambasted FEMA for being unable to come up with a total amount of federal grants given to fusion centers. It could be anywhere from $289 million to $1.4 billion, the report said.

Mostly the Senate investigation focused on the kinds of intelligence that the fusion centers collect and disseminate. Overall, the Senate report said, many of the centers’ reports drew information from media accounts, blogs or press releases- nothing of any value.

The majority of what the fusion centers reported on was related to criminal activity as opposed to terrorism.

Assistant Chief Carter said the Austin fusion center was set up with “some civil rights safeguards in place,” including a privacy policy and an advisory group that meets periodically to oversee it.

Carter also said the center isn’t the big spender the report alleges.

He said Austin police officials have kept meticulous financial records.

The city received a $1.8 million grant for the center in 2008 and a $2.7 million grant in 2009.

“I can tell you definitively that we can account for every penny we’ve spent,” he said.

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