In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush established the Department of Homeland Security, the largest federal law enforcement organization and the third-largest federal employer in the country.
The DHS boasts more than 200,000 employees—in addition to over 60,000 law enforcement officers—and encompasses agencies like the Secret Service and the Federal Protective Service. How did this sprawling national security apparatus fail to prevent a crisis that represents the closest we’ve come to a violent occupation of the Capitol since the War of 1812? Law enforcement documents obtained exclusively by The Nation through open-records requests provide some clues.
Last year, I undertook a tortuous back-and-forth with law enforcement agencies all over the country. (In one case, I even had to file suit against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in a Florida court.) In the end, I managed to amass the titles of hundreds of intelligence reports quietly being compiled by the little-known law enforcement facilities known as “fusion centers,” which proliferated in the wake of 9/11. The lists revealed what these secretive facilities in California, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Washington state, and Washington, D.C., were up to in 2019 and 2020, a period in which the country was rocked with social unrest unprecedented in recent history.
After the DHS became operational in 2003, fusion centers sprang up in virtually every state across the country. Though they’re technically governed by state rather than federal law, they were designed to facilitate the sharing of counterterrorism intelligence between local and federal law enforcement agencies, the DHS in particular. Though local law enforcement’s sudden access to sophisticated federal intelligence drew criticism from civil liberties groups like the ACLU, proponents argued that such intelligence sharing was necessary to prevent the next 9/11. But despite this sprawling network—by the DHS’s own count, there are currently 79 fusion centers in operation—D.C.’s Capitol Police claimed to have received no warnings about the Capitol riot.
Judging by the catalogs I obtained, the reason for the lapse is simple: These fusion centers aren’t focused on counterterrorism. Far from the lofty justifications given for their existence—securing the homeland and so on—the titles of the reports they’ve produced suggest a focus on criminal activity (supposed or otherwise) so mundane it’s at times comical.
The Central Florida Intelligence Exchange investigated the “Criminal and Violent Extremist Use of Emojis” and were tracking an ongoing situation it described as “Subscribers of Black Extremism Collaborate Musically.” It also opened files related to the release of the 2019 movie Joker and a Harry Potter game for mobile phones. The North Florida Fusion Exchange and the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange collaborated on a “Joint Intelligence Bulletin” looking into a “Cookie Thief.” The Fort Worth Intelligence Exchange investigated a plot to break Joe
Exotic, the subject of the Netflix documentary Tiger King, out of jail (“THEY CAN’T STOP US ALL” reads the transcript, presumably citing the plotters’ machinations). They were also on the case regarding matters designated as “BEast OMG” and “DAY OF THE GIRL.” The National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium appears to be the savviest (or perhaps just the youngest) of these centers, turning its attention to viral challenges on TikTok and FaceApp. Meanwhile, the Washington State Fusion Center opened a report “concerning a homeowner working on cars in his driveway and letting oil run down the street into Mission Creek in Olympia.”
While I don’t have the complete reports, these titles seem to suggest that substantial resources have been dedicated to subjects unrelated to terrorism. That is not to say I didn’t request the complete reports; I did. But the fusion centers either refused to produce them, citing their sensitivity, or redacted them beyond all recognition. Consider the Minnesota Fusion Center, which declined to disclose the titles of any of its intelligence reports. It did, however, produce the underlying documents, the relevant contents of which were so thoroughly redacted that even the bullet points were blacked out.
In some cases, it’s not just the relevance of the reports that appears questionable. The National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium of Washington, D.C., produced an intelligence report titled “Novel Coronavirus Unlikely to Impact the District at This Time.” (The ill-fated report is dated January 2020.) Even less amusing are the reports detailing protests that, far from being terror threats, would appear to be constitutionally protected First Amendment activity that is supposed to be exempt from law enforcement monitoring. The National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium even lists a report explicitly titled “First Amendment-Protected Events,” claiming the activities under investigation have the “potential for low-level violence.”
Perhaps most surprising is the astonishing number of incidents labeled “suicide by cop”—cases in which a suicidal person attempts to provoke a deadly response from law enforcement. In the case of the Texas Fusion Center, one single page of report titles refers to “suicide by cop” three times, “suicidal subject” six times, and “possible suicidal LEO” (law enforcement officer) once—all between July and August 2019. One wonders how many lives might be saved in situations like this if the response was made by mental health professionals instead of law enforcement.
I came to see this as the most darkly symbolic example of the workings of our supercharged national security apparatus. Not only does it undertake the invasive surveillance of citizens, squander money and resources, and ultimately fail to prevent terrorism, it also creates its own potentially lethal dangers. There is a stark opportunity cost to investing in this system instead of robust social services. This year, even as Congress spent months vacillating on whether to provide Americans with meager stimulus checks during the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression, it promptly passed—and by an overwhelming margin—a $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act.
Much is expected to change after the long-awaited transfer of power in the White House. But as the War on Terrorism approaches its 20th anniversary with no end in sight, it seems as though the Department of Homeland Security and the bloated intelligence apparatus it’s come to represent are here to stay.