I have wondered about the efficacy of our nation’s counter-terrorism efforts ever since the embarrassing Albany Muslim case of 2004-2006.
Still I was taken aback when I read the Senate report the other day about the “fusion centers” that are supposed to coordinate local police work and national intelligence with a view to preventing terror attacks, one such center being located in Latham. The report concluded that:
“The fusion centers often produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting … and many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever.”
Imagine that. The conclusion not of some wishy-washy civil liberties group but of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which also, incidentally, found that what scant intelligence emerged from these centers 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.”
The first thing I did was check with Steve Downs, the retired state lawyer who has been in the forefront of defending the civil liberties of the local Muslim community, and he was not surprised.
“In the small sense they have little or nothing to do,” he said of the fusion centers, “because there’s virtually no terrorism going on. They have an enormous amount of money and feel they have to use it.”
Enormous amount of money, yes, though not even the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge, knows how much. Maybe $300 million, maybe $1.4 billion, maybe somewhere in between, spent since the program started in 2003.
The idea was that security agents of all stripes, from the CIA and FBI down to your local cops, would share vital information. A local cop would sniff out a radical Muslim and pass the info along to the FBI. The CIA would get wind of a likely terrorist flying into the Albany airport and would alert the local gendarmes.
Possibly a retired lawyer by the name of Steve Downs would sit down for pizza with a couple of South Asian activists visiting from New York, on Central Avenue, and the next thing you know, half a dozen Albany cops would walk in and ask them what they were talking about, which actually happened, in the latter part of August.
“It’s Cointelpro back again,” Downs said, referring to the infamous Counterintelligence Program of the 1950s and 1960s that J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI deployed to subvert and harass both the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Such cooperation might sound fine and dandy right after an attack like 9/11, but as time goes by, that’s what we get — petty harassment from agents with too much time and money on their hands — plus shoddy intelligence unrelated to terrorism, at the expense of our right to free speech and free association.
The Senate committee reviewed a 13-month period in 2009-2010 and found “no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat” nor any contribution that a fusion center made “to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”
Though of course during that time we did have terrorist cases manufactured by the FBI itself, luring marginal characters into imaginary plots so they could be arrested. You don’t need fusion centers for those.
I called the listed number of the Latham fusion center earlier, when Downs and his friends were questioned by the Albany police, but I was told the number was only a hotline and nobody there could answer my questions. Since I had no tips to pass along, I left it at that.
This time I would have asked them about Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s assessment that “instead of strengthening our counter-terrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” but I was sure I would have no better luck than before.
I am something of a connoisseur of government acronyms and initialisms, and in that capacity I especially enjoyed the Senate report.
Of course the Department of Homeland Security was rendered as DHS, and of course “intelligence and analysis” was I&A. But imagine designating an American, or “United States person,” as a USPER, or “open-source intelligence” as OSINT, or “homeland information reporting” as HIR.
As a USPER myself, not to mention a WFT (word-fancying taxpayer), I am dismayed that my nominal employees would bruise and batter the language like this, and I would raise a ruckus about it if I didn’t fear the government would come after me too.
Carl Strock is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.