‘Fusion centers’ program trades liberty for too little security

Aside from being unconstitutionally intrusive, ridiculously expensive and spectacularly ineffective, the Department of Homeland Security’s local “fusion centers” program has been a smashing success.

So concludes a Senate report on the government’s federal-state-local intelligence sharing program established in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In what can hardly be described as a bipartisan season, the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee came to a bipartisan conclusion: a damning indictment of a program it says has spied on Americans and produced little if any useful intelligence on terrorism.

“The subcommittee investigation could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat,” the report said, “nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”

Yet this is a line-item albatross taxpayers could be stuck with for the foreseeable future. Like much Pentagon spending, it has become less about keeping Americans safe than about bolstering regional economies. Just as lawmakers give political cover to unnecessary or obsolete defense systems in their districts for reasons that have nothing to do with defense, state and local governments have used millions in federal Homeland Security money for things that have nothing to do with homeland security.

How many millions? Well, that’s another part of the problem. Nobody seems to know. The Department of Homeland Security puts it at somewhere between $300 million and $1.4 billion. Pick a number.

That money has bought such things as flat-screen TVs and a couple of high-end SUVs for commuting. Local fusion centers have been collecting information on both abortion rights and anti-abortion activists, Ron Paul supporters, war protesters, the ACLU and Second Amendment advocates.

Amassing information about First Amendment-protected activities that have nothing to do with crime is flagrantly unconstitutional.

As an Associated Press report on the Senate committee noted, Congress bears its own share of the blame. The legislation for providing grant money is so lacking in accountability control that even local homeland security offices not squandering federal money on cars and TVs sometimes use it to process information on ordinary crimes totally unrelated to terrorism.

The idea of joining forces against terrorism was sound, and still is. And the vast majority of state and local governments getting federal homeland security grants probably don’t abuse the money or their authority.

But as the Senate report notes, the government has failed to provide “sufficient oversight to ensure the intelligence from fusion centers is commensurate with the level of federal investment.”

Too much money and too much abuse for too little public benefit. Too familiar.

– Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, October 3, 2012
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2012

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Doyle McManus.jpg (13544 bytes) The high cost of protecting America

There's no such thing as too much security. But there is such a thing as security that’s too expensive.

Doyle McManus

Ten years ago, before 9/11 made terrorism our national pre-occupation, the agencies that now make up the Department of Homeland Security spent $22 billion a year on public safety and emergency management. Now Homeland Security is the third-biggest department in the federal government, with more than 230,000 employees and a budget of $55 billion a year.

Before 9/11, the United States spent about $30 billion a year on its civilian intelligence agencies; today, such spending has nearly doubled to about $55 billion, more than the entire State Department budget. Add in spending on military intel-ligence, and the intelligence budget comes to more than $80 billion — a grand total of $135 billion!

How much additional security have we gained from all that spending? It’s impossible to say.

As officials will assure us many times over, we’re safer than we were on 9/11, and they’re right. Al Qaeda’s central leadership is crumbling. Its members still plot against the United States, but their plans have all been foiled so far. Only a handful of extremist attacks on U.S. territory have succeeded since 9/11, all small-scale actions by American citizens with guns, not international terrorists on airplanes.

Does that mean we can consider de-escalating our massive internal security campaign?

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was asked that question recently, and she gave a crisp “No” answer. “The threat against the United States,” she said, is something “that we now have to deal with, I think, throughout the foreseeable future.” But growing numbers of experts and authorities are beginning to ask whether we are spending more than needed.

“If you ramp up fast, and we felt we had to ramp up after 9/11… you’re going to overspend,” noted Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who chaired the official commission on the lessons of 9/11. The panel’s vice chairman, former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, agreed. “We didn’t pay attention to costs,” he said.

Part of the problem is that federal grants were passed out to local law enforcement agencies, who had to come up with ways to spend the money. Hundreds of dubious projects were funded, ranging from cattle-moving equipment in Nebraska, in case of an attack on livestock, to an 8-foot fence around a veterans hospital in North Carolina, in case of an attack on ailing veterans.

But the issue is bigger than the pork-barrel spending that counter- terrorism grants make possible. The public’s desire for safety and Congress’ desire to please have combined to make it easy for spending to increase, but almost impossible for anyone to decrease. Once a program is in place, no one wants to be responsible for killing it, for fear of being blamed in the event of an attack.

As a result, we spend money on measures that we hope will make us safer without knowing for sure whether the added amount of safety is worth the extra cost.

Take the Transportation Security Administration’s controversial program to install enhanced screening devices in the nation’s airports. The advanced machines have drawn criticism from passengers concerned about privacy or radiation. But the question of whether the scanners’ cost provides sufficient benefit was never fully considered, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Most of us would probably favor installing those machines, no matter what a cost-benefit analysis said, because we want airline travel to be as safe as possible. But we’re making that call on a gut level.

There’s no such thing as too much security. But there is such a thing as security that’s too expensive. Ten years after 9/11, it’s time to face the fact that every risk can’t be eliminated — and time to weigh the costs and benefits of security spending more openly.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where his op-ed (edited here) appeared September 4, 2011, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2011.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

hugh_gusterson.jpg (4385 bytes) The bursting global security bubble

By Hugh Gusterson

Human history is the story of complacence. While disaster is fresh in our memory, we take precautions. As the memory of disaster recedes, kept alive only in history books and the fading memories of the aged, we assume that the fruits of precaution are the natural order of things. So we start to take risks. And if the risks pay dividends in the short term, we take more risks, finding reasons not to see that we’re building an edifice of risk that can only eventually collapse under its own weight.

So it was that financiers, economists, congressmen, and regulators talked themselves into believing over the last decade that the economic laws of gravity had somehow been repealed. Otherwise intelligent people professed to believe that house prices could climb far in excess of any other indices of wealth and that a substantially unregulated new banking system, based largely on mortgages and their derivatives, could arise without calamity. If in the short term this produced great prosperity — especially for Wall Street and the politicians and regulators who enabled such a pyramid scheme — the longer-term consequence was a calamity whose full extent we don’t yet know.

And what of the other shoe? Are we at least doing a better job of keeping World War III or a nuclear calamity at bay? I think not.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show that we have already unlearned the main lesson of Vietnam — that occupying faraway countries usually ends badly. (This lesson was articulated in the so-called Powell Doctrine back when former Secretary of State Colin Powell was a reasonable person.) U.S. troops are now involved in direct military attacks against the territory of a nuclear power, Pakistan. Thus, Washington is violating a principal rule of the road the two superpowers worked out during the Cold War: Never let the troops of two nuclear powers engage one another directly.

In addition, Washington is going to extraordinary lengths to weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that U.S. companies can reap the short-term financial benefits of selling nuclear fuel and technology to India. And, ignoring the advice of many arms control experts, the five U.S. presidential administrations in power since the end of the Cold War have been slow to secure loose nuclear material, reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, and have failed to de-alert nuclear weapons still on hair-trigger alert or negotiate a fissile material cut-off treaty. Not to mention, the Air Force has become so careless about nuclear safety that it recently flew nuclear-armed cruise missiles across the country without realizing it.

Then there’s the matter of Russia. George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev had a handshake agreement that NATO wouldn’t expand to Russia’s borders if the Soviets allowed Eastern Europe to go free. But in one of the most short-sighted and dishonorable decisions in recent U.S. history, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush found it convenient to violate this agreement. Currently, Washington is busy absorbing Russia’s former allies into NATO and building military bases and missile interceptor sites close to Russian territory. This is the military equivalent of building a financial empire based on credit default swaps. It’s also Versailles all over again, and we should hardly be surprised that the Weimar figure of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin has been replaced by the efficiently brutal neo-fascism of current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or that the Russians are planning to increase their military spending by 25 percent this year.

When financial systems and security orders collapse, we learn that everything is connected. This is a hard lesson for Americans to learn since we’re ideologically predisposed to believe that every man is an island who can be prosperous and secure while others are not. But now we’ve learned that when poor people in modest neighborhoods lose their homes, the money drains out of our retirement funds and investment banks collapse; and when U.S. banks collapse, they can take European banks and the Russian stock market with them. We’re (hopefully) about to see CEOs lose their mansions because they didn’t care that plumbers and mechanics were losing their three-bedroom starter homes.

Economists like to talk about soft and hard landings when economic bubbles burst. At the moment we’re in the midst of a very hard landing. And what about the security bubble we’ve created? Will that be a soft or hard landing when it bursts?

Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University, with expertise in nuclear culture and international security. His latest book is People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). His article is excerpted from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Web edition, 24 Sept. 2008, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2008.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

rick_steves.jpg (3321 bytes)The real threat to U.S. security

By Rick Steves

The greatest risk to our society today is not Islamo-fascist terrorism, but the people who use that term to scare us. As the human, fiscal and ecological damage caused by our nation’s economic priorities grows, it’s becoming clear that we’re addicted to more than oil — we’re addicted to military spending, too.

The United States spends as much on its military as the rest of humanity combined: more than $400 billion annually — not including the hundreds of billions of dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These military expenses are “off limits” as we sharpen our collective pencils to find $39 billion to cut from domestic programs. And yet, despite our already huge military expenditures, these days it’s hard to get elected without promising even more military spending.

Recently, San Francisco Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval appeared on the Fox News program “Hannity & Colmes.” Frustrated by our government’s budget priorities, Sandoval suggested America would be better off without a military. Instead, he said, “we should invest our money in our kids.” Right-wing pundits pounced on these statements, and even many prominent Democrats distanced themselves from Sandoval.

Should we abolish the American military altogether? Of course not. But daydream with me for just a moment: What if we gradually scaled down military spending, chose not to rush off to foreign wars based on questionable motives, and began to take the name of our “Department of Defense” literally?

Let’s be honest: Is there anyone out there who would actually want to — or, more importantly, be able to — invade the United States? Consider today’s biggest perceived threat, al-Qaeda. Do Osama bin Laden and his gang want to ride into Washington DC, take over our government, and turn us into an Islamo-fascist nation? Or — as his recent offer of a “truce” suggests — do they instead want dignity for the Palestinians, Christian armies out of sacred Muslim territory, and freedom for the Arab world to control its own natural resources?

“We do not negotiate with terrorists,” our administration gravely informs us. But forcing our interests on the ever-more-volatile Middle East doesn’t seem to be helping much, either. Isn’t it ironic that this planet’s most overtly “Christian” nation is feverishly pounding plowshares into swords?

So let’s try something different. Imagine if we required our military to manage with a budget no bigger than all the militaries of our hemisphere combined: That’s Canada – $15 billion; Mexico – $6 billion; everyone from there to Tierra del Fuego – about $16 billion. Round the total up to $40 billion. Add to that a healthy sum to support the United Nations and our allies in their peacekeeping work (say $60 billion a year). Grand total: $100 billion.

That saves more than $300 billion a year, which we could use to tackle not “Islamo-fascism,” but more-fundamental concerns: dependence on oil, both foreign and domestic; a skyrocketing debt that allows other nations (such as China and Saudi Arabia) to gain economic and political leverage over our homeland; progressively violent weather and a rising sea caused by global warming; and a lower class that’s chronically in need of affordable housing, good education and reliable health care. We could even let the wealthy keep their tax cuts.

And what if we decided that, rather than being outvoted routinely in the U.N. 140-4 on Cuba, Israel, torture, the international court, and issues of desperate importance to the developing world (such as global warming, land mines, debt relief and AIDS), we believed it was good for our “homeland security” interests to be supported by the U.N. 140-4? Instead of being at odds with the rest of the world, we could join the family of nations in dealing with the pressing problems that confront us all.

I have many friends in Europe named “Frankie” or “Johnny” who were born in the late 1940s. Every time I see them, I’m reminded that there was a time when our allies in Europe gave their children Yankee names in gratitude for what America meant to them. This can happen once again across the world: America can become a superpower in a positive sense — so appreciated that other nations would fund their militaries to protect us.

The prospect of al-Qaeda attacks is frightening. But America is being held hostage not by a man in a cave, but by clever people with a different agenda. They use Osama bin Laden to scare us — even terrorize us — into funding an agenda that’s weakening our country.

It’s time for patriots to stand up to fear-mongering and broaden our definition of “sanctity of life” and “homeland security.” It’s time for some courage and eloquence on the left. And it’s time for our electorate to wake up and see the real threats to our for-the-time-being-still-great nation. If we rose to this challenge, I think we could report that “the state of our union is strong” — and it would be true.

Travel writer Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com), based in Edmonds, Wash., produces and hosts the public-television series "Rick Steves' Europe" and the public-radio show "Travel with Rick Steves." His op-ed was published in The Seattle Times, 2 March 2006, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2006.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)