The New York Times has filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security over access to department assessments of DHS-funded “fusion centers” written between 2009 and 2014. The centers—created by DHS after 9/11 in an attempt to facilitate information sharing about terrorism among local, state, and federal agencies—have been roundly criticized as duplicative of other counterterrorism efforts, wasteful, and threatening to First Amendment rights. DHS released some assessments to the Times, but in heavily redacted form. The department ignored the Times appeal, and so the newspaper filed suit.
According to the National Fusion Center Association, there are nearly 80 fusion centers throughout the United States. Most states have at least one fusion center, while some states have more than one. California boasts six fusion centers. Massachusetts has two—one run by the state police, and one run by the Boston Police Department.
Despite the fact that fusion centers were established to handle information sharing about terrorism, officials have never been able to identify a single case in which a fusion center contributed to stopping a terrorist attack. Multiple congressional reports have found the institutions wanting. A 2012 congressional report found the centers “produced irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting” and “many produced no intelligence reporting whatsoever.” Documents previously obtained by the New York Times showed fusion centers, including Boston’s, spent lots of time documenting dissent.
The Obama administration’s most recent budget cut funding for a fusion center related program, the Urban Areas Security Initiative. Police didn’t like that one bit, despite the fact that they’ve never been able to show anything for their massive investment in local intelligence amid the post-9/11 funding boom—except for lots of spying on dissent, that is.
Look out for new documents disclosed as a result of this latest Times lawsuit. Fusion centers cost us a lot of money, but thus far they haven’t done us any good. With any luck, the likely soon to be released documents will contribute towards the rolling back of pointless, costly, rights-violating post-9/11 policing measures like fusion centers. Perhaps they’ll even help us convince lawmakers that these “all crimes, all hazards” intelligence hubs should be converted into climate change response centers. After all, climate change and ocean rise are things we can reliably predict, unlike terrorism. And putting these institutions to work figuring out how to protect our coastal cities like Boston wouldn’t require that the police violate First Amendment rights by spying on peace or environmental groups. Seems like a win-win.