ACLU Says Fusion Centers Remain Problematic

April 17, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – As a Senate subcommittee met today to get a “progress report” on fusion centers, the American Civil Liberties Union once again voiced its concerns with the intelligence-gathering institutions. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on State, Local, and Private Sector Preparedness and Integration heard testimony from government and intelligence officials on a recent report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding the centers. Though several recent reports have confirmed fusion centers’ growing role in law enforcement and revealed their expanding ties to private industry, including relationships with massive data-brokering companies, no third parties were set to testify. The ACLU released a report last year outlining serious concerns with fusion centers.

“Fusion centers have the potential to be privacy nightmares,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Every inch of privacy we surrender gives the government a mile of latitude to invade it further. There’s simply too much we don’t know. Strict guidelines must be put in place and enforced. We urge the subcommittee and all of Congress to keep a close eye on those who are keeping a close eye on us.”

The ACLU enumerated many of the threats fusion centers pose to Americans’ privacy in a November report, “What’s Wrong With Fusion Centers.” Many of those warnings have been borne out in news reports over the last six months. Cases of overzealous intelligence gathering, hostility to open government laws, and other lax information sharing practices – which are characteristic of Fusion Centers – have gone from being exceptional to pervasive. Examples of this troubling trend include:

• The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times have both recently reported on the Los Angeles Police Department’s extensive list of “criminal and non-criminal” suspicious behaviors, which LAPD officers are instructed to report. The list includes such potentially innocuous, clearly subjective and First Amendment protected activities as “taking pictures or video footage with no apparent esthetic value,” “drawing diagrams and taking notes,” “espousing extremist views,” and “engaging in suspected coded conversations or transmissions.”

• The Director of National Intelligence issued functional standards for suspicious activity reports that the LAPD program and others like it would generate. These standards make it easier for state and local law enforcement to report non-criminal suspicious activities to the intelligence community and other participants in the Information Sharing Environment. The DNI’s ISE standards re-define “personally identifiable information” to allow the collection and retention of specific data that could be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity.

• According to comments by the commander of the Virginia State Police Criminal Intelligence Division and the administrative head of the center, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law shielding the Virginia Fusion Center from state open government laws, purportedly under pressure from the federal government.

• The Georgia legislature passed a law, which is currently under review by Gov. Sonny Perdue, to notate all drivers’ license applicants in the state who present any form of foreign identification, and to allow access to these tagged records by the Georgia Crime Information Center.

• The Massachusetts fusion center (known as the Commonwealth Fusion Center) released standard operating procedures that authorize inquiries and investigations when “oral or written statements advocate unlawful or violent activity, to determine whether there exists a real threat.” These guidelines allow undercover police officers to attend public meetings to gather intelligence even when there is no reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. The hazards of such a policy were revealed in a recent incident at Harvard University, where a plain-clothes Harvard University detective was caught photographing people at a peaceful protest for “intelligence gathering” purposes. A university spokesman refused to say what the HUPD does with the photographs.

“We can’t afford to be in the dark about fusion centers,” said Michael German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel and co-author of the ACLU fusion center report. “It’s up to our members of Congress and state legislators to make sure our privacy is meticulously guarded. Given the broad scope of information housed by fusion centers, it would be irresponsible not to enforce vigorous oversight. There can’t be any grey area when it comes to Americans’ privacy.”

To read the ACLU’s report on fusion centers, go to:

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