DHS: the rot starts at the top

by Deborah Pierce on October 8, 2012


Looking at the Department of Homeland Security’s response last week to a scathing Senate subcommittee report on fusion centers, it’s clear that the rot starts at the top. DHS is the TSA’s parent agency. Its shoddy operating procedures and defensiveness in response to questions and criticism mirror the way the TSA operates.

As Robert O’Harrow of the Washington Posts reports in DHS ‘fusion centers’ portrayed as pools of ineptitude, civil liberties intrusions:

An initiative aimed at improving intelligence sharing has done little to make the country more secure, despite as much as $1.4 billion in federal spending, according to a two-year examination by Senate investigators . . . [T]he Subcommittee investigation found that the fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless, or inappropriate intelligence reporting to DHS, and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever.

While this report was only about fusion centers budgets and operating procedures, it provides a window into how the DHS responds to criticism, how they view operating procedures, and their general defensive culture. We see similar responses by the TSA.

O’Harrow continues:

Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, an advocacy organization, called the report unfair. Sena, who manages the center in the San Francisco Bay area, said fusion centers have processed more than 22,000 “suspicious activity reports” that have triggered 1,000 federal inquiries or investigations. He said they also have shared with the Terrorist Screening Center some 200 “pieces of data” that provided “actionable intelligence.”

These are interesting quotes for what they don’t say. Sena states that 22,000 suspicious activity reports (SARS) were filed and that those triggered 1,000 investigations. But the goal isn’t just to create work by starting investigations. How many – if any — of these SARs actually led to anyone’s being arrested?

There are other questions Sena doesn’t address. What happens when those investigations are completed? Are the records discarded, or are they filed away somewhere for all eternity ‘just in case’? What about the 21,000 SARs that didn’t trigger further investigation? Are they discarded? Or are files kept on people indefinitely? For that matter, where did the 22,000 SARs originate? Can we file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more about these suspicious reports?

Similar questions can be raised about the “actionable intelligence.” Is the actionable intelligence directed solely at terrorists, or is it directed at constitutionally protected activity?

Why didn’t Janet Napolitano, head of DHS, have anything to say about the report? Why is the DHS using a fusion center advocacy group as its mouthpiece?

With regard to fusion center budgets, O’Harrow writes:

But the report documents spending on items that did little to help share intelligence, including gadgets such as “shirt button” cameras, $6,000 laptops, and big-screen televisions. One fusion center spent $45,000 on a decked-out SUV that a city official used for commuting.

In response to questionable budget items like these, DHS states that ‘all of the questioned expenses were allowable under the rules.’

At no time does DHS apologize for any questionable budget items or suggest that perhaps some of the budget rules should be tightened. Instead, they fall back on vague language and ‘suspicious report’ metrics.

We see similar attitudes from the TSA anytime questions are raised about its procedures. TSA officials become defensive as they try to justify invasive search procedures against passengers. In a case involving two elderly women, the closest the TSA came to an apology is to say they were sorry for the ‘discomfort’ of the women. They weren’t sorry for what they did.

Our civil liberties and privacy rights, including our rights to bodily integrity, are invaded by these agencies on a daily basis. It’s long past time for reform.

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