The lack of reliable financial support from fiscally beleaguered federal agencies and state governments looms large. But an even bigger problem could be the very mission of fusion centers. In October, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report based on a two-year investigation that found the centers had not been effective in doing their job despite the huge sums of taxpayer money spent on their operations.

The investigation said the centers produced intelligence of uneven quality, sometimes endangering citizens’ privacy, and that DHS did not monitor how the money provided to the states -- estimated between $289 million and $1.4 billion -- was used. Instead, the report uncovered spending on items that had little to do with intelligence gathering, from shirt-button cameras to a fully loaded SUV used for daily commuting.

“It’s troubling that the very fusion centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem,” said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation. “Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.”

While the report made headlines and brought fusion centers to national attention, it was just the latest in a long line of reports critical of the centers. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that no “standard performance measures” are used to demonstrate the impact and value of fusion centers when it comes to information sharing goals.

In 2009, professor Torin Monahan, who conducts research on surveillance and security issues at the University of North Carolina, published a paper that raised questions about how fusion centers shared information with private-sector data brokers. “There are no clear mechanisms for oversight or accountability with fusion centers, in spite of the fact that private companies are likely obtaining unprecedented access to government data on individuals, and vice versa.”

The Senate report was strongly denounced by supporters of the intelligence gathering community. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has since retired, said the public record showed that fusion centers had played a significant role in thwarting terrorism and had generated hundreds of leads for the FBI. California’s Sena echoed that sentiment, saying that the recommendations in the report were helpful, but the methodologies used were flawed.

One of the recommendations called for Congress to link fusion center funding to performance, a potentially complicated concept since fusion centers are fundamentally in the prevention business, something that’s not easy to measure. Nevertheless, Matt A. Mayer, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, backs that idea and would like to see it taken one step further. “I think there’s a fundamental flaw in how fusion centers are designed,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a sufficient level of activity in most locations to justify a fusion center.” Mayer believes the number of centers around the country needs to be scaled back to 40 or fewer.

More troubling to many fusion center critics is the lack of oversight with civil liberties and privacy. The ACLU has raised concerns about the centers’ ambiguous lines of authority, the participation of private-sector data brokers, questionable data mining tactics and their overall “excessive secrecy.” According to the Senate report, fusion centers have produced intelligence of “uneven quality -- oftentimes, shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.”

In 2011, an investigation by the Associated Press found that the New York City Police Department had been regularly spying on mosques, student groups, Muslim businesses and communities, with only mixed results to show for its aggressive surveillance work. For New York state Sen. Kevin Parker, who represents a broad range of ethnic communities in his Brooklyn district, the reports of police spying programs raised alarms. “I’m all for coordination among law enforcement agencies when it comes to information sharing and surveillance, but there needs to be accountability,” he says. “We’re talking about agencies that have large amounts of personal data. We have no idea what’s happening with that information. What are they going to do with it?”

Parker has introduced three bills that will provide oversight of fusion centers while protecting privacy and prohibiting “biased-based profiling” from occurring. While the bills will only affect the action of the fusion centers located in New York, they could provide a road map for how other states can address some of the problems that have surfaced with fusion centers.

Some might argue that if Parker’s bills become law, they could have a chilling effect on the country’s ongoing efforts to deal with terrorist threats that grow more sophisticated and have the potential to do harm on a large scale. But Parker worries we may be giving away too much in the name of protection and safety. “Those who are willing to give up a little freedom for more security will get neither.”

This article was originally published by Governing.comAP Photo/Elise Amendola.

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.