FUSION CENTERS: A locally owned and operated Intelligence Machine

Posted: March 3, 2010 in DHS, fusion centers, Government, government spending, government waste, privacy concerns

Fusion centers constitute a new piece in a vastly more powerful police apparatus. They give the executive branch an incredible physical reach into state and local communities.

c/o Thomas Cincotta for The Public Eye

The Department of Homeland Security’s network of fusion centers operate under the auspices of state police or even large local police forces, thus sidestepping the guidelines enacted under the Privacy Act of 1974 that limit information sharing by federal agencies. Yet fusion centers have a national command center feel, with mosaics of television monitors, and desks for all the police agents assigned to work together and enjoy face time — the county sheriff, local police officers, the FBI, National Guard (restricted by law to drug-related missions), state police, Department of Homeland Security, and the civilian intelligence analysts. The FBI field office may rent space to fusion centers, and even helps run the Los Angeles fusion center, but it rarely plays a visibly lead role. Still, all the analysts are tied into federal information-sharing networks.

Since Homeland Security launched the program in 2003, these centers have evolved largely independently of one another. At first glance, smaller, more diffuse centers might seem to pose a smaller threat to civil liberties than a KGB-like national force. In truth, however, this decentralized network may be more dangerous, because it obscures lines of authority, subverts Congressional oversight and privacy guidelines, and turns numerous state and local police into intelligence agents.

Around the world, the War on Terror has served as an “indispensable Trojan Horse [enabling] intensified surveillance for all sorts of purposes.”[3] As early as 1978, the Public Eye reported on an effort to bring the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy under one Director of National Intelligence that unsurprisingly failed amidst fresh memories of COINTELPRO – the FBI’s spying and dirty tricks program targeting activists— and Richard Nixon’s enemies list. By the 2001 attacks, memories of the domestic spying controversies of the 1970s had dimmed and calls for a national intelligence agency reemerged. Congressional sponsors of legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security wanted a fully functional intelligence organization within DHS, but the Bush administration preferred to realign organizations already under the authority of the FBI director, director of Central Intelligence, and the new director of national intelligence. As a result, Congress did not initially give DHS itself the capacity to produce raw intelligence.[4][5] But today fusion centers give DHS the capacity to produce, not just receive, intelligence.

Nurtured by more than $327 million in direct grant funding from 2004 through 2008, fusion centers won an additional $250 million in President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan to be spent by 2010 on upgrading, modifying, or constructing sites. DHS currently has 41 officers deployed at fusion centers and hopes to have an officer at every fusion center in the country by the end of 2010. By the end of 2008, governors, mayors, and police chiefs had established 72 operational centers within the United States and its territories, covering 49 states, District of Columbia, and Guam. Additionally, fusion centers in Idaho, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are in the final stages of development.

INFORMATION COLLECTION FORCE

Fusion centers facilitate the collection of massive amounts of information. DHS – itself comprised of 225,000 people in 22 separate agencies – uses fusion centers, information sharing, and agency integration as a “force multiplier” to tap into the potential of 718,000 state and local police in over 15,000 departments, plus local emergency responders, who could collect more data than 12,000 FBI agents. “There is never enough information when it comes to terrorism,” says Major Steven G. O’Donnell, deputy superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.[11] Unfortunately, the intelligence could be worthless and often is.

Fusion centers ostensibly complement the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which bring together local law enforcement with federal law enforcement components like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Patrol, the Secret Service, and Transportation Security Administration. These two parallel systems for interagency coordination – one under DHS, the other under the Department of Justice – raise questions about redundancy and waste. At the same time, though, the information from fusion centers gives DHS leverage and access to other federal intelligence.

MISSION CREEP LEADS TO THOUGHT CRIME

Fusion centers gather, mine, and “fuse” data to help police fight crime and FBI agents stop terrorism. Data streams in from multiple sources, including intelligence groups, the federal government, other states, private databases, and open sources. Moreover, analysts scrutinize daily crime and 911 reports for patterns. Tips may come in to fusion center tip lines from citizens or police officers. Fusion centers also respond to requests for analysis from law enforcement agencies in the field, primarily investigators seeking to spot trends in areas like drug crime, gang activity, or theft.

It is a universe marked by redundancy. Information currently flows from fusion centers into a national “information sharing environment” such as the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), Protected Critical Infrastructure Information (PCII) Program, and Homeland Secure Data Network (HSDN – for classified data), which all sit alongside the Department of Justice’s Regional Information Sharing System (RISS), the FBI’s Regional Data Exchange and eGuardian, the Naval Investigative Services’ Law Enforcement Information Exchange (LInX) and the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit’s (LEIU) LEO network (LEIU is a private organization of public law enforcement officials, including chiefs of police).

In the absence of purely terrorist activity, DHS’s emphasis on “ensuring that our communities are not places where violent extremism can take root” may invite fusion centers to identify local threats based on political rhetoric that is critical of government policies. Evidence suggests this is already happening. In February 2009, North Central Texas Fusion System issued a “Prevention Awareness Bulletin” calling on law enforcement to report the activities of Muslim civil rights organizations and antiwar protest groups. In March 2009, the Missouri State Highway Patrol was forced to halt the distribution of a report prepared by the Missouri Information Analysis Center that linked extremists in the modern militia movement to supporters of third-party presidential candidates such as Congressman Ron Paul of Texas and former Congressman Bob Barr of Iowa. The report also said that some militia members subscribe to anti-abortion beliefs or oppose illegal immigration – suggestions that created a public uproar among law-abiding groups concerned that they were being lumped in with violent, dangerous people.[20]

The Virginia Fusion Center identified “subversive thought” as a marker for violent terrorism. Furthermore, the Virginia Fusion Center’s 2009 Threat Assessment identified “subversive thought” as a marker for violent terrorism and thus targeted “university-based student groups as a radicalization node for almost every type of extremist group.”[21] In words reminiscent of “communist front” theory dating to the Cold War, Virginia Fusion Center analysts warned of the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged strategy of boring from within by infiltrating different Islamic organizations and obtaining leadership roles. DHS also monitored the D.C. Anti-War Network and shared information with the Maryland State Police – most likely through the fusion center – during a year-long infiltration of Baltimore area peace and social justice organizations in 2007-2008.[22]

DATA-MINING AND PRIVATE DATABASES

Fusion centers reflect the tendency of surveillance systems to grow both in depth – with reams of information on any one person – and in breadth by broadening the variety of sources of personal data that they draw on. With unprecedented access to criminal, intelligence, and private sector databases, fusion centers give local authorities an exceptional capacity to monitor behavior and select individuals or communities for intervention. Accordingly, fusion centers responded with vigor to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security’s 2006 guidelines urging them to “obtain access to an array of databases and systems.” Although the guidelines listed only public information assets, such as motor vehicle databases, state fusion centers now contract with private data brokers to access private information like unpublished cell phone numbers, consumer credit profiles, insurance claims, car rentals, and real estate sales. In 2009, DHS announced a new arrangement with the U.S. Department of Defense that allowed select fusion center personnel to access terrorism-related information from the Department of Defense’s classified network.

The rise of cyberspace, mobile telephones, and a nearly universal reliance on credit and debit cards has, as James Rule put it, “created cornucopias of actionable personal data to tempt the surveillance appetites of institutions.”[28] For instance, in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth Fusion Center website boasts access to Accurint, Lexis-Nexis, LocatePlus, and Autotrack, a product of Atlanta’s Choicepoint, the giant private data aggregator that moved aggressively into the domestic intelligence market after 9/11.[29] Autotrack permits subscribers to browse through more than 17 billion current and historical records on individuals and businesses with as little as a name or social security number as a starting point. In Maryland, authorities similarly rely on a data broker called Entersect, which maintains 12 billion records on about 98 percent of Americans. Systems like fusion centers feed on steady diets of supposedly “actionable” personal information– all accessed without a warrant.

Most government data mining today occurs in a legal vacuum outside the scope of the Fourth Amendment barring unreasonable searches.

State governments established fusion centers with federal dollars in the absence of any legal framework, and their data mining occurs in a legal vacuum outside the scope of the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches.[30] Although data mining can have real consequences for individuals tracked, there are no legal guarantees for the accuracy or appropriateness of the data or the searches, no redress for people injured by being falsely identified as posing a threat, and no judicial or legislative oversight. Some fusion centers purge data searches after one or five years, but no one is responsible for doing so. Fusion center records are also beyond the reach of the Privacy Act of 1974, which regulates and gives individuals access to the files of federal agencies.

Most government data mining today occurs in a legal vacuum outside the scope of the Fourth Amendment barring unreasonable searches.

RESIST MASS SURVEILLANCE

The logic of surveillance systems is to grow. Because there is no “natural limit” to the incorporation of personal information in systems of mass surveillance, our only defense is collective action to impose limits on the post-9/11 intelligence apparatus.[33]

An engaged Congress which takes its oversight role seriously must enact a new series of legal protections on the scale of those of the 1970s. (See Constitution Project proposals.) Just as Americans’ fought for reform in the 1970s, it will take investigations by Congress, state legislatures, attorneys generals, journalists, and citizens to expose the current practices of fusion centers and build the political pressure necessary for change. Lawyers representing protestors and defendants in terrorism cases can also play a key role in discovering how these institutions are monitoring their clients. Lastly, just as DHS engages academia in promoting troublesome theories of intelligence-led policing and violent radicalization, civil libertarians must respond in kind. In a free society, civil liberties must be the cornerstone of antiterrorism policy, not an afterthought, as it has been in the development of fusion centers.

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