A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
German was an FBI agent until 2004 and is currently a national security policy advisor for the American Civil Liberties Union, yet he “had never heard of a fusion center” until 2007. He said the reason that he started investigating these intelligence centers for the ACLU was because he saw hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars going to support law enforcement activities that he couldn’t define.
German said part of the problem is that “no two fusion centers are alike,” making it hard to even talk about them. Even determining “whether something is a fusion center or not is iffy.”
A fusion center is part of a network linking at least 800,000 federal, state, municipal and private security and law enforcement professionals who gather information about Americans in order to combat terrorism. Maybe one such person will stop and ask you why you’re taking a picture of those power lines, or show up incognito to your religious meeting or anti-war demonstration. They might look at your credit report or your phone records. There are at least 58 centers, though some estimate there are as many as 70. They could be in a back room at your local police department, housed within a National Guard office or in a nondescript building down the street.
Do I sound paranoid?
Well, though German told me these centers “developed really quietly” in the years following 9/11, they are not a secret. The Department of Homeland Security has a brief and vague description of the centers on their Web site, notably putting the emphasis on “state and local.” The department also recently issued a report detailing privacy threats posed by the centers. And all the examples of the instances related above have been documented in the media or by the ACLU.
German worked on an ACLU report about fusion centers published in December 2007. In the months that followed, news reports about the abuses the ACLU report anticipated started popping up around the country, so German compiled an update to the report in July 2008. With this week’s news of the report leaked from a Virginia fusion center that warned of traditionally black colleges and peaceful religious and social change groups being potential hotbeds of terrorist activity, German said they’re thinking about compiling another report.
The original idea of a fusion center network came out of the turf war over intelligence sharing after 9/11. Local law enforcement officials weren’t getting security information from the Feds, so states set up these centers to gather and share information. In turn, the Department of Homeland Security was more than happy to have extra hands on the counterterrorism case.
There’s no mission statement or clear set of guidelines for these centers, but in many cases they were envisioned as a repository for suspicious activity reports. If you’ve ever heeded those signs in public places to “say something” “if you see something,” the information you gave out probably went to a fusion center.
Then came the “mission creep.” Each center existed in a local area, each with its own individual problems. Some centers began to focus on border patrol; others volunteered themselves for the drug war. And then there’s the inherent flexibility in the term “suspicious activity.”
If these were merely call centers for concerned citizens to report to, German said he would have no problem with that. In fact, it’s not the fusion centers themselves that are the real issue, but rather the sometimes illegal and unconstitutional activities that occur in clear violation of federal privacy statutes within and around the centers.
Supporters of third party presidential candidates such as Bob Barr and Ron Paul have been targeted for surveillance by these centers for no other reason than their political ideology. Mainstream ecological groups such as the Sierra Club and the Humane Society are being watched as eco-terrorists. One North Central Texas center alleged a terrorist conspiracy between a disparate group of hip-hop musicians, Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbyists, anti-war demonstrators, the U.S. Treasury Department and former Congresswoman and presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.
(The above would be laughable, if it weren’t so scary. Seriously; my mom volunteers for the Humane Society. On second thought, if there are any fusion center employees reading this, leave my poor mother alone! I swear she’s not a radical!)
The ACLU is calling for lawmakers at all levels to institute guidelines and oversight for these centers. They are also calling on the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the abuses that have been documented.
While there have been a handful of congressional hearings on fusion centers as well as local efforts to ensure the centers comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, specific instances of abuse have been largely glossed over by the government and ignored by the media.
“Where there are instances of abuse, there has been very little investigation,” German said, specifically noting a case in Los Angeles where a few fusion center officials were court-martialed for stealing classified information, but the local law enforcement officers who were involved in the theft were never charged.
“We are working with the executive branch to draw guidelines, and there is some progress there,” German said. He emphasized a “multifaceted” approach with state and local legislation plugging the time gap before federal action is taken.
This comprehensive approach mirrors the networking of many levels of jurisdiction at fusion centers themselves. German said the fact that these centers are considered neither national nor local allows them to “water down all the protections to the least common denominator.” In states with strong privacy laws, fusion centers abide by less restrictive federal laws; in states with lax protections, the centers use local regulations.
Public-private collusion also allows fusion centers to skirt privacy laws. Law enforcement doesn’t have the legal right to collect and store certain personal information because of its ties to government. Instead, fusion centers pay private companies, which own extensive stores of information about Americans’ consumer and intellectual habits, to create and maintain searchable databases for the center’s benefit.
“They have created this symbiotic relationship,” German said. “If you combine [federal information gathering with private efforts], it is very dangerous to the individual.” German said the privatization problem at fusion centers is not acknowledged as an issue by officials.
“This is one area that is being ignored by the federal government,” German said.
It would be one thing if these fusion centers worked, but from all the intelligence reports German has seen, he’s concluded that they haven’t done anything to contribute to the country’s security. On the contrary, German says they’re becoming an obstacle to safety due to the public uproar over privacy violations.
“Law enforcement authorities are having to respond to the criticism rather than focus on security,” German said.
Besides the distraction and lack of results, the basic math behind fusion centers may be flawed. The primary weapon at these centers is a method of sifting through information received from all these different sources that is called “data mining.” The practice is very common among direct mail marketers and other small-scale commercial operations, but the ACLU report cites several independent studies showing that data mining is not at all a useful technique for the counterterrorism community. Instead, the ACLU found that data mining would only drain resources and implicate innocent citizens in imaginary plots.
OK, let’s recap: We have local centers in almost every state in the country that engage in illegal and unconstitutional activities, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and that do not actually work to combat terrorism. The impetus for these centers may have been understandable at the time, but why are they still around?
German said the federal intelligence agencies are more than happy to have these local nodes to gather security information for them, saying it’s like having 800,000 extra agents working for them. But Congress may have its own reasons for resisting a call to shut these places down.
“Fear is still driving a lot of our security policies,” German said. He noted political pressure against reducing funds or projects combating terrorism is strong. Many expected the Democratic Congress to limit programs such as warrantless wiretapping, but instead “they’ve been expanded.”
“To narrow any program [related to national security] is extremely difficult,” German said.
Meanwhile the right wing of the blogosphere, already itchy from myths about “Obama’s enemies list” and the expansion of Americorps into liberal “re-education camps,” has broken out in a rash of paranoia over these fusion centers.
German said the ACLU is working with the executive branch to rein these centers in. But after years of operating in secrecy under the Bush Administration, I hardly think a set of guidelines is going to make the renegades at some of the more troubling centers behave. The best move President Obama could make — from a security, civil rights, budgetary and public relations standpoint — is to close these homegrown spy centers immediately.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS