Delicate balance: security and privacyPrivacy advocates: fusion centers threat to civil liberties

Published 6 April 2009

U.S. intelligence fusion centers — in which federal, state, and local authorities collaborate in collecting, analyzing, vetting, and disseminating intelligence to first responders on the ground in an effort to disrupt terrorist or criminal activity — have grown dramatically since 9/11: DHS now recognizes 70 such centers, and they engage 800,000 state and local law enforcement officers; privacy advocates worry

A legal experts told U.S. lawmakers last week that the United States should dismantle state-run intelligence fusion centers, centers which have grown dramatically since 9/11 with the assistance of the federal government. Police and federal officials defended fusion centers and described measures being taken to protect citizens’ privacy and civil liberties.

Bruce Fein, of Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group, compared state fusions centers to the Soviet Union’s KGB and East Germany’s Stasi and called for the United States to “abandon fusion centers that engage 800,000 state and local law enforcement officers in the business of gathering and sharing allegedly domestic or international terrorism intelligence.”

Fusion centers bring together law enforcement and intelligence personnel from state, local, and federal government to collect, analyze, vet, and disseminate intelligence to first responders on the ground in an effort to disrupt terrorist or criminal activity. DHS recognizes seventy fusion centers across the United States. Because states operate fusion centers, no two are exactly alike.

Fein was also critical of suspicious activity reports (SARs), whereby police officers and concerned citizens report unusual behavior that may indicate a terrorist or criminal conspiracy. These reports typically flow to fusion centers.

To an intelligence agent, informant, or law enforcement officer,” Fein said, “everything unconventional or unorthodox looks like at least a pre-embryonic terrorist danger.”

Fein argued that if you employ the intelligence collection standards employed by fusion centers, everyone from the Founding Fathers to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to suffragette Susan B. Anthony would have been the subject of SARs. He also noted that the United States has engaged in such behavior before, as when the FBI spied on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, or surveiled the peace movement under COINTELPRO, an FBI domestic surveillance program. Fein said similar mischief by fusion centers is already afoot.

Matthew Harwood writes that in recent months, leaked bulletins have shown fusion centers have singled out for monitoring groups that engaged in politically protected speech. A February bulletin from the North Central Texas Fusion System alerted law enforcement officers to watch out for Muslim organizations that espouse the supremacy of Islam. Another February report from a fusion center in Missouri listed the characteristics of a militia member, which included support for libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul as well as anti-government bumper stickers and flags.

Representative Jane Harman (D-California), chair of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, dismissed Fein’s “Orwellian view of fusion centers” in her opening statement and asked the other witnesses “to address what by my lights are alarmist and over-the-top claims directly.”

Robert Riegle, director of the state and local program office of DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis, said that all DHS intelligence and analysis staff assigned to state fusion centers are trained in privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties issues. He also noted that DHS has made recommendations to fusion centers to promote transparency and privacy protections among its staff.

Allegations that armed forces officers play a vital role in fusion centers or that fusion center staff provide inappropriate intelligence to the private sector are myths or exaggerations, said David Gerstein of DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. While some fusion staff members are military, they are there in support roles but in no way lead the centers, he said. As for private sector involvement in fusion centers, Gerstein said fusion centers share intelligence to the private sector when it involves critical infrastructure or specific threats to a company.

House Homeland Security Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi) said fusion centers will only work  if they are “done right.” “Fusion centers should be about creating intelligence that tells first preventers what to ‘be on the lookout’ for,” he said. “That’s information that will help keep Americans safe, without violating our First Principles.” Russel Porter, director of Iowa’s fusion center and chairman of the Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Units, agreed. “If we fail to continue to make the protection of privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights a top priority, the fusion center network will not be sustainable.”