NEWS

Problems at Fusion Centers Tied to Poor Training

By Matthew Harwood

Highly-paid employees of the Department of Homeland Security detailed to state and local fusion centers to ensure quality local intelligence was passed on to the U.S. intelligence community suffered from a lack of training that resulted in intelligence reports described as “a bunch of crap,” according to a bipartisan Senate subcommittee investigation released Wednesday that savaged DHS’ involvement with fusion centers.

Investigators from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations learned that DHS officials assigned to fusion centers received no more than five days of intelligence reporting training, which resulted in some of those officials forwarding homeland intelligence reports (HIRs)--containing raw, unprocessed intelligence--to DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) that were largely full of useless information that sometimes violated civil liberties and privacy guidelines. 

“‘You can barely teach people what the word [‘intelligence’] means’ in a week,” Harold “Skip” Vandover, chief of I&A’s Reporting Branch between 2009 and 2011, told subcommittee investigators. “All the problems we saw - are all linked right back to training.”

In 2007, Congress named DHS the lead federal agency tasked with integrating state and local fusion centers, often owned and operated by state police departments, into the U.S. intelligence community. The goal was to establish networks of two-lane highways for information-sharing between local police and U.S. intelligence agencies. Fusion centers and I&A became the hubs of the network, working together to determine what could and could not be shared. Today DHS recognizes 77 fusion centers nationwide, providing both staff and resources to the intelligence shops.

The personnel, known as reports officers (ROs), “were not junior officials,” notes the report. Most were GS-14s, a designation for their place on the federal government’s civil service pay scale. Their compensation during the time of the subcommittee’s investigation ranged between $80,000 to more than $100,000.

One DHS Senior Reports Officer (SRO) told the Subcommittee that training wasn’t adequate for most people. A former Army intelligence analyst, he said he received six months of intelligence training while in the Army. “Night and day” is how he described the difference between Army and DHS intelligence training. Substandard reporting was “systemic,” former Deputy Undersecretary for I&A Jim Chaparro told investigators.

Lack of training and the resulting substandard reporting of raw intelligence slowed the reporting process to a crawl. In response to frequent poor reporting, DHS had to institute a four-part review process to ensure raw intelligence was reportable. This tied a millstone around efforts to produce timely, genuine intelligence.

“[T]he new review process, when it met with a steady flow of poorly-written, sometimes inappropriate reporting, slowed I&A’s intelligence publishing by months,” the report noted.

Investigators discovered that a majority of the HIRs forwarded to I&A’s Reporting Branch in between April 2009 and April 2010 had no value, or worse.

Of the 574 unclassified draft reports investigators reviewed, 188 were cancelled and never published. Forty of those would have violated the Privacy Act if published. Of the remaining 386 unclassified HIRs that eventually were published, the subcommittee’s review “found close to 300 of them had no discernable connection to terrorists, terrorist plots, or threats.”

The remaining reports that investigators found valuable, however, took four months to publish on average, many of which were already reported via a direct connection between local and state law enforcement and the FBI, often on the same day.

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