The staggering cost to keep America safe

State ‘fusion centers’ monitor potential threats, but some question their value

Most Americans are familiar with the War on Terror being waged overseas, but fewer know about the U.S. government’s efforts to combat terrorism at home, which have consumed more than $1 trillion since al-Qaida hijackers turned passenger planes into guided missiles 15 years ago today.

Drawing from years of post-9/11 data and experience, some question whether the threat of terrorism on American soil warrants that staggering level of security spending, which includes millions being spent in Ohio.

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After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, program upon program was hatched to address every conceivable terrorist threat. This year, a total of $69.8 billion in homeland security funding was spread across 28 federal agencies, according to an analysis required by the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

Critics say much of the money is poured into a black hole with little oversight and produces few actionable results. They contend that the money could be spent more efficiently, if not used to tackle other threats and diseases that take far more American lives.

John Mueller, a senior research scientist at Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies, calculates the number of tips fielded by law enforcement at about 20 million since 9/11. Almost all are worthless, he said.

“Obviously, spending time following up on these nonsense leads is a questionable use of resources,” he said. “But they are still following up on every single terrorism lead no matter how trivial and obviously trivial on its face.”

Richard Zwayer, Ohio Homeland Security executive director, says the terrorism threat is not exaggerated. Rarely a day goes by that the Statewide Terrorism and Crime Center doesn’t get a tip related to potential terrorist activity, he said.

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“I can tell you the risk of not doing the work we do could certainly lead to another 9/11,” he said. “If local law enforcement and state law enforcement, federal law enforcement were not sharing information and developing intelligence from it, could there be another day where we had another 9/11? Certainly.”

Plenty of fear

Fifty-one percent of Americans are either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism, according to 2015 Gallup polling. Eighty-four percent say ISIS is a critical threat to the United States. That level of fear is a far cry from the actual terrorism threat, which remains extremely low, Mueller said.

“No one wants to talk about acceptable risk, but clearly we do accept a lot of risk,” Mueller said. “We can’t get risk down to zero in anything: automobiles, surgery, or a deer running across the road. We basically live with those threats.”

Even counting 9/11, an American has about a 1-in-4 million chance any given year of being killed on U.S. soil by a terrorist of any motivation, but they have about a 1-in-4 chance of dying of cancer. Yet cancer research received $5.6 billion in federal funding in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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But the idea that terrorism is a significant threat has stayed with us in the past 15 years.

“It’s no surprise to people throughout the United States when you look at incidents like San Bernardino and Orlando, that the threat of terrorism remains very real for Americans,” Zwayer said. “We’ve had recent reminders that ultimately we are not 100 percent safe from these things happening.”

Failed programs

Some steps to thwart terrorists are generally viewed as effective, such as hardening cockpit doors on airplanes and enhancing screening for those boarding planes or crossing borders. So, too, the stockpiling of antidotes for agents such as anthrax and beefing up protection around critical infrastructure.

But other measures have proved to be expensive boondoggles.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office lists many suspect programs — from cameras and motion sensors along the Mexican border that are more apt to snare wildlife, to unworkable drive-through radiation detectors, to a billion-dollar alarm system designed to detect aerosolized pathogens but continually triggers false alarms.

A vast communications system called FirstNet was described in The Atlantic this month as arguably “the most wasteful post-9/11 initiative.” FirstNet may one day allow police, firefighters and other first-responders the ability to communicate by radio across the country. But 15 years after 9/11, detractors say today’s smart phones have the same, if not more, capability. Yet the program may ultimately cost taxpayers up to $47 billion.

Businesses also are on the hook for homeland security spending. Though more difficult to assess, a Conference Board report in 2003 showed more than half of companies had increased security spending after 9/11.

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Likewise, it’s difficult to tell how much additional spending not offset by federal dollars has been shouldered by local and state governments. A 2009 Heritage Foundation analysis of cities eligible to receive special Department of Homeland Security grants showed the 2007 homeland security budgets for those jurisdictions — which included 47 percent of the country’s population — totaled $37 billion.

They received about $2 billion that year in federal grants.

The bulk of Ohio Homeland Security funding this year — $2.15 million of a $2.61 million budget — is funded by the state.

Federal homeland security grants are primarily dedicated to purchasing equipment, establishing or enhancing mutual aid agreements, creating private and public partnerships, mitigating cyber risk, and supporting counterterrorism training and disaster response exercises.

While the feds might pay for some equipment and programming costs, local jurisdictions provide the personnel.

More than 71 new Joint Terrorism Task Forces have been created since 9/11 and membership swelled fourfold, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which oversees the groups. Task forces now number 104 with 4,000 members representing more than 500 local and state agencies and 55 federal agencies.

The Dayton Police Department participates in an FBI terrorism task force with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, United States Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, United States Secret Service, and police departments from Cincinnati, West Chester, Harrison and Colerain, according to the FBI.

Fusion centers

Adding to the thousands of law enforcement members on terrorism task forces are thousands more who staff the National Network of Fusion Centers. Personnel from about half of the nation’s almost 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies serve as fusion center liaison officers.

Immediately after 9/11 it was largely believed that the nation’s police agencies couldn’t share information quickly, thus fusion centers were created. Now the country has 78 of these multiagency organizations that gather and analyze threat-related information. They share it among federal, state and local law enforcement as well as other public officials.

Though the centers were established with federal funding, fusion centers are owned and operated by local and state entities that provided more than 56 percent of operating funds in 2014. In addition to Ohio’s statewide center in Columbus, DHS-recognized centers also are located in Cincinnati and Cleveland.

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Fusion centers use the public’s “eyes and ears” as a force multiplier, said Hamilton County Sheriff’s Capt. Michael Hartzler, director of the Greater Cincinnati Fusion Center.

“They are the ones who can report to us. We obviously can’t be everywhere all the time,” Hartzler said.

The Hamilton County-based fusion center also serves agencies in seven other Ohio counties, including Butler and Warren, as well as counties in Kentucky and Indiana.

Among other things, analysts monitor the news and social media and take tips, investigating every suspicious activity report. But a bipartisan congressional investigation in 2012 stated that the contributions of state and local fusion centers played little significant roles in federal counterterrorism efforts and often infringed on civil liberties.

Shared crime data

Hartzler said the Greater Cincinnati Fusion Center produces “products” or reports by the hundreds that are distributed to other agencies about four times a week. The reports relay crime data and information about gangs and narcotic rings as well as trends among drug users.

He said the fusion center was the first to identify the recent regional overdose outbreak from the extraordinarily powerful opioid carfentanil. It also took the point on keeping other agencies informed of a spate of school bomb threats.

But whatever the center’s successes, it doesn’t amount to cracking terrorism cases.

Acting independently in May 2015, an FBI task force did arrest a West Chester man who supported the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Munir Abdulkader made plans with an ISIL fighter in Syria, as well as an FBI confidential informant on the case. Abdulkader was arrested when the informant set up a controlled purchase of an AK-47 assault rifle. The 21-year-old pleaded guilty in July to attempting to kill officers and employees of the United States, material support of a foreign terrorist organization and possession of a firearm.

Hartzler, a 36-year law enforcement veteran, defends the fusion centers, which he said are just now maturing in their roles as lone wolves like Abdulkader become more of a threat.

“Given the variables, (Americans) are more safe today because of the cooperation within the fusion center network, the federal, state and local intelligence gathering and sharing,” Hartzler said. “It’s just there are variables that have come up since 9/11 such as the radicalization and the people we need to watch out for within the country.”

Chasing ghosts?

Mueller said the public’s insecurity coupled with a “vast ghost-chasing industry” has effectively created terrorists where few exist.

“The bottom line, there isn’t much of a threat,” he said.

More typically, would-be terrorists are incompetent and gullible. Mueller said these people are potentially seditious and he’s glad to have them off the street, but they don’t have the knowhow, or means, to pull off large-scale attacks.

“But when you get into these cases — it’s certainly not only my conclusion, everybody who looks into it — these guys are up to no good, no question about that, but their ability to actually try and do much of anything is pretty limited.”

Like Abdulkader, so-called “masterminds” are more often snared by undercover agents and informants after being supplied by government handlers with dummy equipment for an attack.

“If that’s the demon, it’s not been very impressive,” Mueller said.

To be sure, terrorists have struck since 9/11, including at least six attacks linked to Islamic extremists, the first being a July 4, 2002, shooting at an El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

The others all have occurred since 2009 and include a 2009 shooting at a military recruiting station in Arkansas, the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and two 2015 attacks, one at a Tennessee military recruiting station and the other in San Bernardino, Calif.

Other notable attacks have failed, such as the would-be American Airlines flight shoe bomber in late 2001, and an attempted bombing of Times Square in 2010.

It’s yet unclear what motivated Omar Mateen in June to kill 49 and injure 53 at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in the worst terrorist attack in America since 9/11.

Ohio incidents

What’s clearer, some say, is that fusion centers have had little affect identifying would-be terrorists. Of the cases DHS touts as fusion center success stories, few involve terrorist activities, and critics contend those that are related to terrorism sometimes are overstated.

In 2014 the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report declaring that DHS could not accurately account for funds provided to states to operate the centers.

“The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars in counterterrorism and military operations, completely reorganizing our homeland defense infrastructure, changing our laws, and establishing a domestic surveillance apparatus J. Edgar Hoover could have only dreamed of,” wrote Michael German, a former FBI agent focused on domestic terrorism and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, an organization that has been critical of fusion centers.

Fusion centers bore little fruit in cases with terrorism connections that Ohio Homeland Security lists on its website. A supposed 2012 case of a thwarted Cleveland bridge bombing by incompetent anarchists was the result of an FBI sting operation in which they were provided inert explosives. Two other cases involved people sending money to terrorist groups.

The fourth case involved former Springfield resident Jerry Kane, Jr. and his son Joe, anti-government extremists who in 2010 gunned down two police officers — well outside the state in West Memphis, Ark.

Since it was launched in 2005, the statewide fusion center in Columbus, which underwent a name change in July from the Strategic Analysis and Information Center, never has gone into “full activation” for a terrorist threat, Zwayer said.

“Hopefully we don’t have to do that.”

Aberration or harbinger?

At least 263 government agencies focused on counterterrorism were either created or reorganized in the aftermath of 9/11, including the integration of all or parts of 22 different federal departments and agencies under Homeland Security, which opened its doors March 1, 2003.

What was most feared after 9/11 never materialized: ensuing waves of attacks by Islamic terrorist sleeper cells.

In putting together the vast security apparatus, no one in authority at that time — and few since — have contemplated whether the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans were “an aberration rather than a harbinger” of future terrorist plots, Mueller said.

“Obama tried last year … he started talking about how ISIS did not present an existential threat to the United States,” Mueller said. “He’s the president of the United States and obviously a great communicator with a bully pulpit and it did not go down very well.”

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