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Senate report: Costly anti-terror centers don't work, may violate civil liberties

Sign at the entrance to Portsmouth Dockyard:
Sign at the entrance to Portsmouth Dockyard: "Counter Terrorism Response Level Heightened."
Mark Hooper/Flickr

A bipartisan U.S. Senate report released Wednesday concludes that the nation has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into anti-terrorism "fusion centers" over nine years, with little to show for all that spending. The report also raises concerns about information gathering and storage at the centers that could violate Americans' civil liberties. (You can read the full report below.)

Fusion centers, scattered around the country (with one in Los Angeles), were designed post-Sept. 11 as intelligence hubs where local and federal authorities could exchange information, follow up on reports of suspicious activity and coordinate in the event of disaster. Federal Department of Homeland Security officials have said they're a centerpiece of the nation's counterterrorism strategy.

To reach their conclusions, Senate investigators reviewed 13 months worth of reports the centers had generated and "could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot."

Instead, the report says, investigators found fusion center workers "forwarded 'intelligence' of uneven quality — 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."

The report also indicated that privacy protections have improved in the past few years, but not enough. 

If accurate, the report indicates that some civil liberties activists' fears about the intelligence centers have been valid: Since the centers' inception, they have worried that the centers would investigate and store information about citizens who have nothing to do with terrorist activities.

Homeland Security officials respond that the report is not fully accurate. 

In various statements on and off the record to media outlets, agency officials have called the report misleading, incomplete and out of date.