A disturbing new Senate report highlights anti-terrorism “fusion centers,” which were designed to allow state, local and federal investigators to share information about terrorism. Instead, says the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the centers have produced useless intelligence information and proven a waste of money. “The subcommittee investigation 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,” the report alleged. What’s more, the fusion center reports often targeted innocent US citizens as terrorist suspects, improperly collecting their personal communications.

Fusion centers were created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the best way to get local, state and federal officials to share terrorism-related information, speak with each other and “connect the dots” of terrorist plots before they happened [...]

The report found that intelligence and analysis often produced “intelligence spam” that relied on stale information and provided little valuable analysis, and which was widely ignored by federal counterterrorism officials.

In the rush to stand-up the department’s intelligence arm, the short-staffed office relied heavily on contractors, such as Booz Allen Hamilton and General Dynamics, which reaped millions of federal dollars.

In the new Senate report, investigators found that with the lack of oversight, fusion centers spent money wildly, including a San Diego fusion center that bought 55 flat-screen televisions at a cost of $75,000 to watch the news and display calendars.

Some of the fusion centers have no physical office space, despite money poured into building and sustaining them. And there’s no actual accounting of the funding involved.

More distressing is the routine collection of the personal information of US citizens involved with the effort.

When fusion centers did address terrorism, they sometimes did so in ways that infringed on civil liberties. The centers have made headlines for circulating information about Ron Paul supporters, the ACLU, activists on both sides of the abortion debate, war protesters and advocates of gun rights.

One fusion center cited in the Senate investigation wrote a report about a Muslim community group’s list of book recommendations. Others discussed American citizens speaking at mosques or talking to Muslim groups about parenting.

No evidence of criminal activity was contained in those reports. The government did not circulate them, but it kept them on government computers. The federal government is prohibited from storing information about First Amendment activities not related to crimes.

So the picture painted here is of set of agencies with no real terrorism expertise, writing reports taken somewhat seriously as detailed intelligence threats that were haphazard, useless as actual threat assessment, and involved with illegal data collection. Over 1/3 of the reports were so shoddy that they were never published for use by the intelligence community. And most of the reports were about drug activity, a reminder of the ways and which “anti-terrorism” resources have frequently been used to prosecute the war on drugs.

Carl Levin does fine work chairing this subcommittee, and the reports are always interesting. Apparently ranking member Tom Coburn did the lead work on this, which would explain the focus on funding. The full report is here, and the subcommittee recommends that the Department of Homeland Security actually reveal the budget for these fusion centers, reform the intelligence training and reporting process, disclose to Congress any deficiencies and actually protect civil liberties.

For their part, DHS says that local communities have benefited from fusion centers. So it sounds like they’ll just move forward. And because these fusion centers bring big money to communities, that’s not likely to be stopped by Congress.