Federal report cites unfinished Philadelphia counterterrorism center as flawed

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) said the centers "continue to develop in a very disjointed fashion."
U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) said the centers "continue to develop in a very disjointed fashion." (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / File)
Posted: October 05, 2012

Philadelphia's sluggish efforts to build and staff a counterterrorism center came under an unflattering spotlight Wednesday when a U.S. Senate report criticized oversight of a project that has spent roughly $2.3 million in federal money since 2006 but that has barely gotten launched.

The report asserts that as of August, the "fusion center" - intended as an intelligence-sharing crossroads for city, state, federal, and port officials from around the region - still didn't exist.

At one point, state officials blocked federal aid for the center because of a request for construction money, a prohibited use, the report found.

Homeland Security's "insistence on listing fusion centers with no physical presence is not only puzzling, but raises questions about its entire assessment process," said the bipartisan report released by Sens. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), the top members of the Homeland Security Committee's investigations subcommittee.

City officials, however, say that a small center is operating and that plans to build a regional intelligence center were back on track, particularly since the Philadelphia Police Department recently took control of the project.

"The facility is extremely important. We're excited about it. It's moving forward," said Tom Elsasser, a legislative assistant to Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety and Mayor Nutter's chief of staff.

The building of the center is about a year behind schedule, but, Elsasser said, "we have not spent money improperly."

The city plans to build the $20 million center at the old Army Quartermaster Corps site at 20th Street and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia. Half of the money would come from the federal government, and half locally.

Though officials envision a 40,000-square-foot center, so far there is only a small office staffed 12 hours a day by one federal agent plus 12 to 20 officers from the city's Homeland Security department, Elsasser said.

The rest of the city's Homeland Security team is elsewhere.

The goal of the site is to foster intelligence-sharing throughout the region and among various levels of government. Philadelphia police will run it.

Construction was slowed when the city ran into communication problems with a regional association of counties that managed some of the money, said Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, which controls the federal funding for fusion centers in the commonwealth.

"They got out-and-out bad information that they relied on," Cannon said.

The state blocked funding in 2011 and is still awaiting a final lease before it can forward more federal money.

But in the last six months, the city has taken the lead on the project and "things have been going much, much smoother," Cannon said.

The slow-going project was dragged into a controversy Wednesday that left even some Washington insiders scratching their heads.

It was one element included in a 141-page report that harshly criticized fusion centers nationwide and the federal Department of Homeland Security, saying the sites had produced little valuable intelligence and often wasted taxpayers' money.

The report, stemming from a two-year investigation started by Coburn, used Philadelphia's unfinished center as one example of what the authors saw as poor oversight of federal money.

But some key members of the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees criticized the findings by one of their own subcommittees, saying the report was incomplete and painted with too broad a brush.

The investigation is "out of date, inaccurate, and misleading," said a statement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The report's legislative critics, who defended the fusion centers, included the Senate committee's chairman, Joe Lieberman (Ind., Conn.), and the panel's top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, plus U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R., N.Y.) chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Their critiques created the spectacle of members of the same committee and same party coming to vastly different conclusions about the value of the fusion centers, a concept that grew out of realizations that various intelligence agencies had failed to "connect the dots" in time to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and former U.S. attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania, said the Philadelphia fusion center was "very slow to develop" and that the centers in general "continue to develop in a very disjointed fashion."

Most of the heavy lifting on information-sharing and antiterrorism work is handled by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces, Meehan said Wednesday in an interview.

That leaves a murky mission for the fusion centers, which can add resources when needed but which have often focused on other regional security issues, such as drug dealing or preparedness for natural disasters.

The conflicting takes on the subcommittee's report led to cautious statements Wednesday from local officials still digesting the details.

Sen. Tom Carper (D., Del.), who is on the Homeland Security committee, said, "Some aspects of this report will help us focus on where we need to improve fusion centers, while other findings will require more information."

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said he had "serious concerns" about the Philadelphia center.

"We need to be aggressive in improving the coordination of critical threat information at the local level," Casey said, "and I will demand a full accounting of this gap."

Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CaptiolInq.

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