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Did Homeland Security help FBI take down Alaska's militia conspiracy?

Amanda Coyne

As the budget deficit grows, no federal department or program has been immune to criticism. The hulking Department of Homeland Security, one of the biggest federal agencies, has come under increasing scrutiny.

Led by budget hawk Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, a U.S. Senate committee released the results of a two-year investigation about waste at Homeland Security. The scathing report focused on so-called “fusion centers,” where state and local police share information about terrorism with their federal counterparts.

Anywhere from $289 million to $1.4 billion are spent on about 77 centers across the country per year. The discrepancy in funds, according to the report, is the result of Homeland Security not being able to “produce a complete and accurate tally of the expense of its support for fusion centers.” Too, according to the report compiled by investigators on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the centers have “not yielded significant useful information to support federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts.” Instead, much of the money that wasn’t spent on cars and televisions seems to have disappeared.

Fusion centers have had some successes. One of them, which Homeland Security highlighted in testimony, seems to be Alaska’s fusion center. It played a role in stopping a domestic terrorist attack in Alaska by militia member Schaeffer Cox, who was found guilty of conspiracy to murder federal officials and now faces life in prison.

“From December 2010 through February 2011, the Alaska (fusion center) provided consequential information that assisted an FBI Anchorage Field Office investigation that culminated in the arrest and conviction of a sovereign citizen/militia leader and two associates,” Homeland Security told the subcommittee.

Created by Gov. Sean Parnell in 2009, the fusion center in Anchorage is relatively small and inexpensive compared to others across the country. The center is housed in the FBI building in downtown Anchorage. It has three state employees, including Alaska State Trooper Rex Leath, and one analyst from Homeland Security. It acts as an “information hub” between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, Leath said.

“It’s easy for one of those levels to be working on the same investigation and not know it. We sit in the middle of three entities and look for similarities,” Leath said.

Aside from the use of the federal building where it’s housed, and that one Homeland Security employee, it gets only about $25,000 a year in grants.

The author of the fusion center report interviewed Leath about Cox and the center’s role in the militia take-down. According to the report, Leath said that information it received and information compiled by the fusion center attracted the attention of the FBI, particularly information about Cox’s role in militias in other states. “As soon as we got that information, it got the attention of the local FBI office. That’s when the FBI got involved.” Leath is quoted as saying.

There appears to be some confusion about this, however. In the report, Leath is quoted as saying that the center received the information that got the attention of the FBI in 2011. However, the FBI began investigating the militia group in 2010, perhaps earlier.

Leath said that he got confused on the dates when he spoke to the interviewer. He also said that the interviewer misinterpreted the comments that he made about who took the lead in gathering information about Cox. Further, he said that the office did receive information about Cox’s activities in other states, but it acted more like a “mailbox” than an investigative unit.

Cox gave an anti-government speech in Montana that was mentioned in the trial. The full version of that speech, however, was on YouTube. “When we receive information, we look to see who’s working that investigation. In this case it was the FBI. We notified them of that information. That’s what we did,” he said.

The FBI declined comment on the fusion center’s role in the Cox case. In the months-long militia trials, neither Leath nor the fusion center was ever mentioned.

The report alleging government waste in Homeland Security and its focus on fusion centers was not “accurate or factual,” Leath said.

John Hart, Sen. Coburn’s spokesman, said Coburn stood by the report.

Contact Amanda Coyne at Amanda@alaskadispatch.com