Shortly before the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Phoenix in July, the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis issued an ominous threat assessment. The 12-page document, marked “for official use only,” included maps and satellite photos of the venue: a convention center and a prominent hotel.
It had all the trappings of a terrorism warning. There was just one problem: there was no real threat.
“The FBI, DHS, and Phoenix metropolitan-area law-enforcement agencies have identified no credible terrorist threats to the MLB ASG or its associated events and venues,” the document said. “Nevertheless, we assess that the MLB ASG’s high profile could make it a desirable target for terrorists or individuals seeking to cause casualties and to exploit media coverage to promote their cause.”
This exercise in futility has been repeated so often over the years that the office built with hundreds of millions of tax dollars is no longer taken seriously by many intelligence experts and law-enforcement agencies. A year after Sept. 11, the Homeland intelligence and analysis office was created to keep state and local law enforcement informed about domestic terror threats. The operation, intended to bring together the many limbs of the intelligence monster, has become feared for something else: spam.
“They produce almost nothing you can’t find on Google,” says Chet Lunner, a former Homeland Security deputy undersecretary.
Since 2003, the office has published more than 21,000 intelligence reports, averaging about 300 a month in recent years. Because of the widespread distribution, and because of past controversies like a 2009 report on right-wing extremism that irked Congress and veterans, the reports are typically stripped of sensitive detail.
In one report, the office warned law enforcement to be aware of suspicious vehicle fires—more than seven months after the attempted Times Square attack left a bomber’s car in flames.
The office issued a bulletin with the FBI about a man who allegedly told police he intended to kill doctors who perform abortions. But the one-page document relied on the same material that had been used in news reports in the days after the man’s arrest.
In another instance, the office wrote a document called “Incendiary Devices: Potential Terrorist Attack Method” that described an old-fashioned Molotov cocktail made with a laundry-detergent bottle. It said one sign of trouble might be the presence of a “large number of matches,” along with the “smell of gasoline.”
“I stopped paying attention to [the office’s] analysis a long time ago because it had become redundant and therefore irrelevant,” says Louis B. Tucker, who recently stepped down as a staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, which represents 72 counterterrorism and crime centers around the country, says the Homeland office has improved somewhat over the years but still puts out information far too late. “If you’re accurate but not timely, it’s pretty much worthless,” Sena says.
The office’s actual spending isn’t public because the budget was made classified several years ago.
John Cohen, one of the department’s top counter-terrorism leaders, says the operation has developed a stronger focus on its state and local government “customers” and offered more training, technology, and access to information. He says the quality and timeliness of reports have improved.
But even some congressional supporters question its value.
“If no one’s reading the product, what’s it worth?” says Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who heads a House Home-land Security oversight subcommittee.
Becker and Schulz are reporters for the Center for Investigative Reporting.