WASHINGTON — Federal Fusion Centers — massive data-retention facilities funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security — have spread out across 77 cities, collaborating with local law-enforcement agencies to identify and defuse terrorist threats.
But the center in Massachusetts, an early adopter of the intelligence-gathering program, failed to stop the two accused Boston Marathon bombers. Indeed, in the run-up to the attack, officials acknowledged that the left arm of the law didn’t know what the right arm was doing.
Testifying at the House Homeland Security Committee this month, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis said he was unaware that the FBI had, in 2011, questioned one of the brothers implicated in the deadly street bombing.
“In a literal sense, the homeland security system that we built after 9/11 to protect the American people from terrorist attacks failed to stop the Tsarnaev brothers,” former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., told the panel.
In 2004, then-Gov. Mitt Romney established the “Commonwealth Fusion Center” as part of a national effort to centralize and expand government’s ability to collect and retain personal information for the professed purpose of preventing terrorism.
Federal Fusion Center guidelines declare, “Leaders must move forward with a new paradigm on the exchange of information and intelligence.”
The American Civil Liberties Union calls the centers a “powerful intelligence data hub.”
“It makes a mountain of electronic information — from a wide array of public and commercial sources — available to law-enforcement officials, who can collect, share and comb through it, going far beyond the bounds of ordinary criminal investigations,” the ACLU said in a statement.
In Boston, that process produced more confusion than clarity.
Alongside the Massachusetts fusion center, the Boston Police Department ran a companion operation, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center.
Despite the bureaucratic overlap — or because of it — Davis testified that neither the city nor his department was told that Russian intelligence agents had explicitly warned U.S. officials about Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
“This is a case where redundancy actually creates intelligence gaps,” ACLU senior policy counsel Mike German told Watchdog.org from his Washington, D.C., office.
“Even as the FBI was working, the Boston Fusion Center was chasing around protesters” who had no connection to the terrorist attack, he said.
German scoffed at DHS’ assertion that fusion centers collect data from more than 1,000 investigations nationally each year.
“The threshold (for launching an investigation) has been lowered so much that the vast majority are false alarms,” German said, referencing Boston law-enforcement agents’ surveillance of anti-war protesters while the Tsarnaev brothers worked out of sight.
Massachusetts targets included the Greater Boston chapter of CodePink and the Veterans for Peace movement. Though the activists were not charged with any crime, officers filed reports with the Fusion Center under headings including “Criminal Act,” “Extremists,” “Civil Disturbance” and “HomeSec-Domestic.”
Critics, ranging from Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan to Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, accuse the fusion centers of doing little more than collecting “crap intelligence.”
“The volume overwhelms agents who have become accustomed to treating this as a check-the-boxes exercise. They move quickly on to the next one, rather than focusing on real threats,” German said.
Matt Mayer, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said fusion centers could be more effective if the federal government was more focused.
“You have to be careful about having too much data. Piling up more hay just makes it harder to find the needle,” he said.
Mayer suggested that DHS is “under-resourcing the top 30 cities,” including Boston.
“We don’t need 77 fusion centers. Have half the number of fusion centers and put resources to the best effect,” he recommended.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that a wide-ranging probe into the Boston bombing investigation “is active and ongoing.”
Holder told the House Judiciary Committee he expects inspectors general from the Justice Department and intelligence agencies “will provide a good sense of who had what information, and whether or not it was properly distributed.”
Committee member Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, wasn’t so sanguine.
“The FBI blew an opportunity to save people’s lives,” he charged.
Holder disputed Gohmert’s assertion, tartly responding, “You cannot know what I know.”
Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected].
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