Lawmakers divided on post-9/11 program that collected info on Americans, not terrorists

WASHINGTON — Stinging criticism from Congress about a counterterrorism effort that improperly collected information about innocent Americans is turning up the heat on the Obama administration to justify the program’s continued existence and putting lawmakers who championed it on the defensive.

The administration strongly disagrees with the report’s findings, and leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee are distancing themselves from the report. The review criticized the multibillion-dollar network of “fusion centers” as ineffective in fighting terrorism and risky to civil liberties.

The intelligence reports reviewed by the subcommittee were produced by officials in the Homeland Security Department’s Intelligence and Analysis division, which was created after the Sept. 11 attacks with the hope of connecting the dots to prevent the next terrorist strike. This division has never lived up to what Congress initially hoped for.

Though fusion centers receive money from the federal government, they are operated independently. A federal law co-sponsored by Lieberman and Collins authorized that centers cover criminal or terrorist activity.

Five years later, Senate investigators found, terrorism is often a secondary focus.

The report is as much an indictment of Congress as it is the Homeland Security Department.

One of the report’s recommendations is that the department needs to do a better job of tracking how its money is spent; that’s a recommendation with which both Collins and Lieberman agree.

Despite that, Congress is unlikely to pull the plug because the program means politically important money for state and local governments, and Homeland Security officials are adamant that the money is well spent.