Domestic anti-terror effort spurs controversy

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WASHINGTON -- Stinging criticism from Congress about a counterterrorism effort that improperly collected information about innocent Americans is turning up the heat on the Obama administration to justify the program's continued existence and putting lawmakers who championed it on the defensive.

The Senate review criticized the multibillion-dollar network of "fusion centers" as ineffective in fighting terrorism and risky to civil liberties.

The administration strongly disagrees with the report's findings, and Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committees' leaders are distancing themselves from the report. The political maneuvering by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, is unusual because the bipartisan report was issued by their own subcommittee.

The intelligence reports reviewed by the subcommittee were produced by officials in the Homeland Security Department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with the hope of connecting the dots to prevent the next terrorist strike. This division has never lived up to what Congress initially anticipated.

Mr. Lieberman and Ms. Collins were the driving forces behind creation of the department. Fusion centers, the analytical shops intended to spot terrorism trends in every state, are held up by many as the crown jewel of the department's security efforts.

"I strongly disagree with the report's core assertion that fusion centers have been unable to meaningfully contribute to federal counterterrorism efforts," Mr. Lieberman said in a statement Wednesday, singling out six "shortcomings" in the report. Ms. Collins issued a separate statement that listed four shortcomings.

Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said the report came from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, rather than the full committee. "I know that seems odd, but this is strictly a PSI report," she wrote in an email.

The Homeland Security Department and several major law enforcement associations also strongly disagreed with the findings. Pulling back federal money for the program would force state and local governments to cover all of the costs.

The department said the report is outdated and inaccurate. It cited specific examples of how the centers have contributed to counterterrorism efforts in major cases, including the 2010 attempted car bombing in New York City's Times Square. That is an example the subcommittee challenges in its report.

The subcommittee reviewed more than 600 unclassified reports over a one-year period and concluded that most had nothing to do with terrorism. The subcommittee chairman is Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, and the top Republican is Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.

One center cited in the investigation wrote a report about a Muslim community group's list of book recommendations. Others discussed U.S. 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 did keep them on government computers. The federal government is barred from storing information about First Amendment-protected activities unrelated to crimes.

States have had criminal analysis centers for years, but the fusion centers were set up after the 2001 attacks as officials realized that a terrorism tip was as likely to come from a local police officer as the CIA.



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