Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Flickr image courtesy wallyg.

The federal government has spent more than $426 million since 2004 through homeland security grants building and sustaining new local intelligence fusion centers. But their contributions to the war on terror have not been meaningfully evaluated, according to a Sept. 29 report from congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office.

Authorities began establishing the centers after Sept. 11 to help state and local governments better collect, analyze and share information that could expose terrorist attack planning. Civil liberties advocates have long complained that fusion centers are compiling too much personal data belonging to innocent people in hopes that one tidbit could be “fused” with another to create leads.

The latest GAO report underscores another issue surrounding the centers that’s lingered since their inception. What exactly have they done to make the nation safer, and as the investment from U.S. taxpayers grows closer to half-a-billion dollars, is the expense worth it? Many of the centers are now focusing their energy on everyday law enforcement activities rather than terrorism despite relying so heavily on homeland security funding. According to the GAO:

If fusion centers are to receive continued financial support, it is important that centers demonstrate they are providing critical information that is helping the federal government protect against homeland security and terrorist threats through a set of performance measures.

CNN’s “American Morning” caught up with fusion centers on Sept. 30 and told the story of political activist Ken Krayeske, arrested and jailed in 2007 by local police for taking photographs of Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell. That incident set off a chain of events in which Krayeske learned through court records that Connecticut state police officials monitored him after becoming “alarmed” by Krayeske’s blog discussing protests of the governor’s inauguration. Authorities searched his name in commercial databases taking note of the fact that he’d been a Green Party campaign director and was once convicted for civil disobedience.


Sept. 30 story from CNN on fusion centers.

Pennsylvania’s homeland security director has resigned amid a spy scandal there that led to public outrage after it was first exposed Sept. 14. Authorities paid a private contractor thousands of dollars to compile intelligence bulletins describing events organized by environmentalists, gay and lesbian organizations and anti-war groups. Even a nonprofit with ties to the governor made an appearance in the memos.

A state police director testified before legislators Sept. 27 where he likened the bulletins to reading a grocery-story tabloid. Elevated Risk on Oct. 1 explored the extraordinary breadth of law-enforcement surveillance that occurred under Philadelphia’s controversial one-time police commissioner and later mayor Frank Rizzo.

Law enforcement and national security officials want to wiretap the Internet with greater ease as more people begin communicating online than by telephone. The New York Times first reported Sept. 27 plans by the Obama administration to seek “sweeping” legislation from Congress next year that would require Facebook, Skype, the maker of Blackberries and other companies offering communications services to allow for the interception and unscrambling of encrypted messages.

Such capabilities already exist for cell phones and landlines. But according to the Times:

Investigators have been concerned for years that changing communications technology could damage their ability to conduct surveillance. In recent months, officials from the FBI, the Justice Department, the National Security Agency, the White House and other agencies have been meeting to develop a proposed solution. … Several privacy and technology advocates argued that requiring interception capabilities would create holes that would inevitably by exploited by hackers.

That wasn’t it for major national security news coming out of the Obama White House last week. The Washington Post revealed that federal officials want banks to notify them of all electronic money transfers headed into and out of the United States, “a dramatic expansion in efforts to counter terrorist financing and money laundering.”

Financial institutions already send a whopping 14 million reports each year to the Treasury Department automatically for transactions larger than $10,000. The feds now want money transfers of $1,000 or more to be reported. The result will be information on hundreds of millions of transfers entering a database accessible by regulators and law-enforcement officials, according to the Post.

Time magazine following a six-month investigation published a cover story Sept. 30 that examined “the secret world of extreme militias.” Recruiting and training for militias is on the rise, but so are criminal probes of them by federal and local law enforcement officials, Time found.

Grievances motivating militias aren’t always simple to pin down and many of them have been around for years. But a resurgence is being attributed in part to the election of a black man as president of the United States. What’s perhaps more interesting about militias is the multitude of claims many have developed about American history, like that the 16th Amendment instituting federal income taxation “was ratified through fraud.”

India is planning a gargantuan program for biometric data collection. Every one of its $1.2 billion people will have fingerprint and iris scans taken for storage in a database if all goes as planned. Observers are calling it the most complex attempt yet at national identification.

Earlier this year, Elevated Risk wrote about a similar project underway in Mexico where officials hope to eventually possess biometric information on all of its citizens. Pennsylvania-based Unisys Corp. has been awarded a $32 million contract for the Mexico initiative.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.