72 State Fusion Centers Feed Information to the FBI's 'Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative'
March 27, 2010
“People don’t know what fusion centers are,” says Catherine Bleish, who was the opening speaker at the 2010 New Hampshire Liberty Forum on March 19.
Fusion centers were created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a way for local and state law enforcement agencies to share terrorism related information with the federal government, and vice versa. The idea quickly ran into problems, first among them the fact that there simply isn’t enough terrorist activity to justify the concept. Instead of shutting down as pointless, fusion centers gradually began expanding into sharing information about all crimes. Fusion center activity over the years has also raised concerns about government surveillance of legally protected political activity.
Bleish, who was led into becoming an activist by the 2008 Ron Paul presidential campaign, said she was informed of a report published by the Missouri Information Analysis Center, leaked in March 2009, which stated among other things that people with Gadsden flag and Ron Paul bumper stickers could be militia members or potential terrorists. Bleish, who is the executive director of the Liberty Restoration Project, spearheaded further investigation and activism, eventually leading to MIAC retracting the report.
“MIAC is a Department of Homeland Security fusion center,” she said during her speech. “These institutions are doing a lot of damage to the relationship between the general public and the law enforcement community.”
Bleish also runs Operation Defuse, a project to inform the public about the nature and activities of fusion centers and how those activities contribute to the federalization and militarization of law enforcement.
The New Hampshire Liberty Forum is an annual conference held by the Free State Project, a movement to bring 20,000 activists to New Hampshire to work toward reducing the size, scope and power of government and increasing individual liberty and responsibility. The project has signed over 10,000 participants, and over 800 have already moved. The Liberty Forum, and the project’s summer camping event, PorcFest, allow people undecided about the project to see the state firsthand and observe and participate in local activism.Map of Fusion Centers as of December 2007
Originally Published on December 5, 2007
A new institution is emerging in American life: Fusion Centers. These state, local and regional institutions were originally created to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different state, local and federal law enforcement agencies. Though they developed independently and remain quite different from one another, for many the scope of their mission has quickly expanded — with the support and encouragement of the federal government — to cover "all crimes and all hazards."
The types of information they seek for analysis has also broadened over time to include not just criminal intelligence, but public and private sector data; and participation in these centers has grown to include not just law enforcement, but other government entities, the military and even select members of the private sector.
These new fusion centers, over 40 of which have been established around the country, raise very serious privacy issues at a time when new technology, government powers and zeal in the "war on terrorism" are combining to threaten Americans' privacy at an unprecedented level.
Moreover, there are serious questions about whether data fusion is an effective means of preventing terrorism in the first place, and whether funding the development of these centers is a wise investment of finite public safety resources. Yet federal, state and local governments are increasing their investment in fusion centers without properly assessing whether they serve a necessary purpose.
There's nothing wrong with the government seeking to do a better job of properly sharing legitimately acquired information about law enforcement investigations — indeed, that is one of the things that 9/11 tragically showed is very much needed.
But in a democracy, the collection and sharing of intelligence information — especially information about American citizens and other residents — need to be carried out with the utmost care. That is because more and more, the amount of information available on each one of us is enough to assemble a very detailed portrait of our lives. And because security agencies are moving toward using such portraits to profile how "suspicious" we look.
New institutions like fusion centers must be planned in a public, open manner, and their implications for privacy and other key values carefully thought out and debated. And like any powerful institution in a democracy, they must be constructed in a carefully bounded and limited manner with sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse.
Unfortunately, the new fusion centers have not conformed to these vital requirements.
Since no two fusion centers are alike, it is difficult to make generalized statements about them. Clearly not all fusion centers are engaging in improper intelligence activities and not all fusion center operations raise civil liberties or privacy concerns. But some do, and the lack of a proper legal framework to regulate their activities is troublesome.
This report is intended to serve as a primer that explains what fusion centers are, and how and why they were created. It details potential problems fusion centers present to the privacy and civil liberties of ordinary Americans, including:
- Ambiguous Lines of Authority. The participation of agencies from multiple jurisdictions in fusion centers allows the authorities to manipulate differences in federal, state and local laws to maximize information collection while evading accountability and oversight through the practice of "policy shopping."
- Private Sector Participation. Fusion centers are incorporating private-sector corporations into the intelligence process, breaking down the arm's length relationship that protects the privacy of innocent Americans who are employees or customers of these companies, and increasing the risk of a data breach.
- Military Participation. Fusion centers are involving military personnel in law enforcement activities in troubling ways.
- Data Fusion = Data Mining. Federal fusion center guidelines encourage whole sale data collection and manipulation processes that threaten privacy.
- Excessive Secrecy. Fusion centers are hobbled 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.
The information in this report provides a starting point from which individuals can begin to ask informed questions about the nature and scope of intelligence programs being conducted in their communities. The report concludes with a list of recommendations for Congress and state legislatures.
October 21, 2010
Agencies across the state are working together to fight crime. The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) held a dedication Thursday morning for what is known as a Fusion Center.
The center sits inside a building at the DPS headquarters complex in North Austin.
DPS allowed media inside for a rare look at how the agencies work together to solve crimes. Large screens and rows of computers fill one room after another at the center. Each room is dedicated to a type of intelligence gathering including border security and gang activity.
The purpose of a fusion center is to create a central location where local, state, and federal agencies can work together to share the information they have gathered about different crimes or threats, in particular terror threats or trends in organized crime.
“This is a great day for the State of Texas. It's going to make us safer," said Congressman Michael McCaul, R-Texas. "Fusion centers, sharing information, sharing intelligence is what is going to detect, deter and prevent a future terrorist attack.”McCaul is one of the heads of the Homeland Security Committee. He visited the Fusion Center on Thursday for its dedication. It is one of about 70 in the nation.
The center has actually been under development for about a year now. The dedication marks the official launch joining multiple state and local agencies.
A majority of the group was working during the recent shooting on the University of Texas campus, as well as during the suicide plane crash into the Echelon building earlier this year.
The Austin Police Department is part of the group working at the center. APD secured city approval in May to create a center within the complex to coincide with the fusion facility.
Money to fund the center comes from Homeland Security Grants.
Several rights groups have expressed concerns regarding a possible over-sharing of information. APD officials say they will allow watch groups certain access to oversee any potential concerns.
September 23, 2010
Secretary Janet Napolitano and other officials from the Department of Homeland Security testified today on the growing threat of homegrown terrorists and small-scale attacks.
There’s a growing chorus from the homeland security community on this trend, and Napolitano testified that although for many years Al Qaeda and its allies seemed to be waiting for the opportunity to stage an attack on the dramatic scale of 9/11, these days, a looser network of groups is more willing to resort to tactics like planting IEDs:
It is clear that the threat of al Qaeda-style terrorism is not limited to the al-Qaeda core group, or organizations that have close operational links to al Qaeda. While al Qaeda continues to threaten America directly, it also inspires its affiliates and other groups and individuals who share its violent ideology and seek to attack the United States claiming it is in the name of Islam – a claim that is widely rejected.One of the ways DHS is approaching this threat is by beefing up the country’s network of fusion centers — groups that fuse local law enforcement work with national-level intelligence. Napolitano has made the centers a major focus of the department’s FY11 grant cycle. The idea is, as Napolitano said today, is that
“In an environment where operatives may not have close links to international terrorist organizations – and where they may, in fact, be based within this country – these levels of law enforcement may be the first to notice something suspicious.”Fusion centers don’t have the strongest records of keeping their focus on international terrorist organizations, though. As G.W. Schulz reports for the Center for Investigative Reporting:
One of the nation’s oldest fusion centers, known as the El Paso Intelligence Center, accidentally caused a California couple that owns a flight training school to be falsely held at gunpoint by police for the second time. Twice now EPIC has failed to clean up incorrect data that led authorities to believe a plane owned by the pair was stolen.In Maryland, a fusion center and DHS ended up labeling a peace group as terrorists. Anti-abortion activists have also come under suspicion.
Despite these sorts of missteps, the number of fusion centers is only growing: there are currently 72 scattered across the country.
December 20, 2010
The FBI is assembling a massive database on thousands of Americans, many of whom have not been accused of any crime, the Washington Post's Dana Priest and William Arkin report. The reporters' latest look at the country's ballooning national security system focuses on the role that local agencies -- often staffed by people with little to no counter-terrorism training -- have played in combating terrorism since 2001.
Here are five striking revelations in their piece:
- The FBI's Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative currently contains 161,948 suspicious activity files, into which authorities can put information they've gathered about the people at the center of the files: employment history, financial documents, phone numbers, photos. In many cases, the people in the files have not been accused of any crime but have attracted the suspicions of a local cop, FBI agent or even fellow citizen. The files have led to five arrests but no convictions, the FBI says. Some of the files are unclassified so that local police agencies and even businesses can submit reports on anyone they deem suspicious.
- The Department of Homeland Security does not know how much it spends in funding state fusion centers, which synthesize security information from all state agencies and feeds information to the FBI's "Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative." But since 2001, DHS has doled out $31 billion to states and localities for homeland-security initiatives.
Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura: Police State (Season 2, Episode 4):
- Local officials at these fusion centers are tasked with understanding terrorism with little or no training. To fill the void, self-styled experts with fairly extreme views on the scope of the Muslim terrorist threat are asked to come in and train local authorities, the Post reports.
Expert Walid Shoebat told a group at the first annual South Dakota Fusion Center Conference in Sioux Falls this year that they should monitor local Muslim student groups and mosques and try to tap their phones. "You can find out a lot of information that way," he said.
National intelligence officials told the Post they preferred that people with "evidence-based" approaches to Islam were lecturing instead, but that no guidelines are in place to determine the qualifications of a given speaker.
- The localities are often left without guidance from DHS, which can lead to confusion about the counter-terror activity they're supposed to be carrying out. Virginia's fusion center named historically black colleges as a "potential" terrorism hub, Maryland State Police infiltrated local groups that lobbied for bike lanes and human rights, and a contractor in Pennsylvania writing an intelligence bulletin flagged meetings of the Tea Party Patriots Coalition and environmental activists.
- Many states and towns are taking the unprecedented amounts of money handed out to fight terrorists and are using it instead to fight crime.
"We have our own terrorists, and they are taking lives every day," Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin, said.