New Castle News


October 5, 2012

Our Opinion: Senate panel finds little use in anti-terrorism program

NEW CASTLE — Whenever government operates in a crisis, several things are sure to happen.

And one of those involves government officials throwing money at the problem — whether it accomplishes anything or not. It’s only later, sometimes much later, that a serious examination of what’s being done exposes the waste.

Although terrorism has been a problem for generations, if not centuries, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, galvanized America’s response to the danger. Like never before, government resources of all types were devoted to the struggle against international terrorism, typically with the full support of Congress and the American people.

Along with the visible beef-up of security at airports and other facilities, changes after Sept. 11 included assorted covert means of identifying and targeted suspected terrorists. Many of these efforts were — and remain — classified, as the nation’s security experts don’t want to tip off terrorists about ways they are being monitored.

But one area that’s generally known to have attracted the interest of investigators is the subject of data mining. Although it takes different forms and uses a variety of techniques, data mining basically involves combing websites, cell phone calls and assorted means of communication.

The goal is to identify patterns of activity that could signal terrorist activity.

However, what a security agency gets out of a data mining effort depends on how information is collected and analyzed. And a new report coming out of Congress suggests considerable money and resources have been expended on these efforts with little in the way of useful results. To the contrary, the Senate report indicates the main consequence is a threat to civil liberties by government entities with powerful means of monitoring the activities of citizens.

A subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee reviewed documents produced by the Homeland Security Department’s Intelligence and Analysis Division. Specifically, it examined work produced by what are called fusion centers. These are set up in every state to examine data trends that could provide early warnings for terrorist attacks.

The centers are federally funded, but they operate at the state level. Without federal support, states would be forced to pick up the tab, or let the centers fade away.

The Senate committee report criticized a lack of oversight on how funds were being spent on the program in terms of results produced. Those results are minimal, at best. Instead, the centers were seen as gathering data on legitimate activities, particularly those involving Muslims and Islamic organizations that had no links to terrorism.

Not surprisingly, the committee report has been rejected by the Obama administration, state governments and even Senate leaders. Its findings run afoul of the notion that money spent on anti-terrorist activities is well spent.

But this report says otherwise. And a nation interested in security — physical and financial — ought to demand better.

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