Fusion centers were designed to organize localized domestic intelligence gathering into an integrated system that can distribute data both horizontally across a network of fusion centers and vertically, down to local law enforcement and up to the federal intelligence community. These centers can employ officials from federal, state and local law enforcement and homeland security agencies, as well as other state and local government entities, the federal intelligence community, the military and even private companies, to spy on Americans in virtually complete secrecy.
We found that while fusion centers vary widely in what they do, but five overarching problems with these domestic intelligence operations put Americans’ privacy and civil liberties at risk:
- Ambiguous Lines of Authority. In a multi-jurisdictional environment it is unclear what rules apply, and which agency is ultimately responsible for the activities of the fusion center participants.
- Private Sector Participation. Some fusion centers incorporate private-sector corporations into the intelligence process, potentially undermining privacy laws designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans, and increasing the risk of a data breach.
- Military Participation.Some fusion centers include military personnel in law enforcement activities in troubling ways.
- Data Mining. Federal fusion center guidelines encourage wholesale data collection and data manipulation processes that threaten privacy.
- Excessive Secrecy. Fusion centers are characterized by excessive secrecy, which limits public oversight, impairs their ability to acquire essential information and impedes their ability to fulfill their stated mission, bringing their ultimate value into doubt.
We urged policymakers to examine this emerging network of fusion centers closely and, at a minimum, to put rigorous safeguards in place to ensure that they would not become the means for a new era of police intelligence abuses. There were 40 fusion centers when the report was published. Six months later there were 58 fusion centers and a growing number of news reports illustrating the problems we identified, so in July 2008 we published a follow-up report. Today there are at least 77 fusion centers across the country receiving federal funding.
Since these ACLU reports were published, a number of troubling intelligence products produced by fusion centers have leaked to the public:
- A Texas fusion center released an intelligence bulletin that described a purported conspiracy between Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbying groups, the anti-war movement, a former U.S. Congresswoman, the U.S. Treasury Department and hip hop bands to spread Sharia law in the U.S.
- The same month, but on the other side of the political spectrum, a Missouri Fusion Center released a report on “the modern militia movement” that claimed militia members are “usually supporters” of third-party presidential candidates like Ron Paul and Bob Barr.
- In March 2008 the Virginia Fusion Center issued a terrorism threat assessment that described the state’s universities and colleges as “nodes for radicalization” and characterized the “diversity” surrounding a Virginia military base and the state’s “historically black” colleges as possible threats.
- A DHS analyst at a Wisconsin fusion center prepared a report about protesters on both sides of the abortion debate, despite the fact that no violence was expected.
These bulletins, which are widely distributed, would be laughable except that they come with the imprimatur of a federally backed intelligence operation, and they encourage law enforcement officers to monitor the activities of political activists and racial and religious minorities.
Fusion centers are also the focal point for growing suspicious activity reporting programs that encourage public reporting of innocuous everyday activities. The Colorado Information and Analysis Center even produced a fear-mongering public service announcement asking the public to report innocuous behaviors such as photography, note-taking, drawing and collecting money for charity as “warning signs” of terrorism. The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute published a survey of fusion center employees in September 2012, which characterized suspicious activity reports as “white noise” that impeded effective intelligence analysis.
There is some good news, however. The 2010 DHS Homeland Security Grant Program established a requirement that fusion centers certify that privacy and civil liberties protections are in place in order to use DHS grant funds. This is the first time DHS has acknowledged its authority to regulate fusion center activities and it coincides with the establishment of a new DHS Joint Fusion Center Program Management Office to oversee DHS support to fusion centers. While these are only small steps, they are important advances toward establishing an effective governance and oversight structure over fusion centers. But reforms are not taking place fast enough and fusion centers and the risks they pose only continue to grow.
In October 2012, the Senate Homeland Security Committee Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a highly critical report on fusion centers, revealing that public officials’ claims about their effectiveness were not accurate, that federal funds designated for fusion centers were not properly accounted for, and that intelligence analysts and reports officers lacked sufficient training and often produced reports that infringed on civil rights. In response, the conservative Heritage Foundation called for cutting back the number of fusion centers. With ample evidence of abuse, the time has come for Congress and your local government representatives to act by cutting off funds to fusion centers that do not have a narrowly-tailored law enforcement mission, strict guidelines to protect Americans’ privacy, and independent oversight to prevent abuse.
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