The Senate Subcommittee on Investigations released a report on Tuesday criticizing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) counter-terrorism initiatives taken after 9/11.

Over a period of thirteen months, the bipartisan congressional subcommittee reviewed over 600 unclassified intelligence reports drafted by officials of the DHS’s Intelligence and Analysis  (IA) division. The subcommittee found that between April 1, 2009 and April 30, 2010, not a single report uncovered a terrorist threat, or diffused a terrorist plot.

Besides the profligate funneling of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars into DHS activities unrelated to counter-terrorism (estimates go from 289 million to 1.4 billion dollars), on a personal level, more disturbing is the violation of civil liberties in the name of counter-terrorism.

‘Fusion Centers’

After 2003, seventy state and local ‘fusion centers’ were created partially with federal funds to tackle domestic terrorism. Congress defines fusion centers as “a collaborative effort of two or more Federal, State, local, or tribal government agencies that combines resources, expertise, or information with the goal of maximizing the ability of such agencies to detect, prevent, investigate, apprehend, and respond to criminal or terrorist activity.”

The report contends, however, that as a counter-terrorism effort, fusion centers are defunct, lack useful information, and “potentially violate[d] department guidelines meant to protect Americans’ civil liberties or Privacy Act protections.”  This includes IA officials reporting First Amendment-protected activities lacking links with violent or criminal activity, and “reporting on or improperly characterizing political, religious or ideological speech that is not explicitly violent or criminal; and attributing to an entire group the violent or criminal acts of one or a limited number of the group’s members.” For example, IA officials recorded the following activities:

  • A reading list created by a Muslim community group titled “Ten Book Recommendations for Every Muslim.” The report noted that four of authors in the list existed in the U.S. counterterrorism database, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). This report was not published because one reviewer pointed out that the writings were protected by the First Amendment.
  • A leaflet published by a chapter of the Mongols Motorcycle Club, a Californian biker gang. Although in 2008 they became notorious for murder, and drug trafficking, their pamphlet was the focus of the report, because it instructed bikers how to deal with the police when pulled over.
  • A U.S. citizen delivering a Muslim organization to conduct a day-long workshop on positive parenting.
  • Another U.S. citizen lecturing at a mosque. The official drafting the report expressed concern about the lecturer having once been head of an Islamic school in the U.S. recorded in the TIDE database. The official wrote: “There is concern… that [the subject’s] visit… could be to strengthen ties with the… mosque as well as to conduct fundraising and recruiting for the sake of foreign terrorist organizations.” However, there was zero evidence to support this claim.

The reports above, besides being replete with simplistic understandings about religion and culture, suggest that officials recorded constitutionally protected activity under the First Amendment: Freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom of religion.

The report couldn’t have been released at a better time, almost a month before the Nov 6th election. President Obama has been under intense scrutiny for his civil liberties record during the ‘War on Terror.’  However, the onus isn’t solely upon him. A recent article in the Huffington Post asserts that Mitt Romney opened two of the country’s first fusion centers. Romney’s campaign has attempted to spin it in their favor and against the Obama campaign, stating: “What this report demonstrates is a failure on the part of the Obama Administration to effectively deploy counterterrorism resources in protection of our nation. Gov. Romney believes that intelligence on terrorist threats must be appropriately collected, properly analyzed, and promptly acted upon. In mismanaging intelligence fusion centers, the Obama administration has failed on a key part of this job.”

Moving beyond its polarizing effect on national security policy, the report reveals the repercussions of a security paradigm that sees tradeoffs between national security and civil liberties. Yet it shouldn’t always be a tradeoff; policymakers must see that counter-terrorism and the preservation of people’s civil liberties ultimately fulfill the same ends– the actualization of a society free from violence in all its forms, and one where the pursuit of justice isn’t obscured by its means.