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Friday, October 22, 2010

An American Stasi?

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reported on July 25 that “there are 72 fusion centers around the nation, analyzing and disseminating data and information of all kinds. That is one for every state and others for large urban cities.”

What is a fusion center?

The answer depends on your perspective. If you work for the Department of Homeland Security, it is a federal, state, local, or regional data-coordination unit, designed to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism and anti-crime data in order to make America safer. If you are a privacy or civil-rights advocate, it is part of a powerful new domestic surveillance infrastructure that combines data from both the public and private sectors to track innocent people and so makes Americans less safe from their own government. In that respect, the fusion center is reminiscent of the East German Stasi, which used tens of thousands of state police and hundreds of thousands of informers to monitor an estimated one-third of the population.

The history of fusion centers provides insight into which answer is correct.

Fusion centers began in 2003 under the administration of George W. Bush as a joint project between the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. The purpose is to coordinate federal and local law enforcement by using the “800,000-plus law enforcement officers across the country” whose intimate awareness of their own communities makes them “best placed to function as the ‘eyes and ears’ of an extended national security community.” The fusion centers are hubs for the coordination. By April 2008 there were 58.

The growth has continued under the Obama administration. Indeed, President Obama has also continued Bush’s concealment of domestic intelligence activity by threatening to veto legislation that authorizes broader congressional oversight or review of intelligence agencies by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). As a result of that threat, the GAO provision was removed from the Intelligence Authorization Act.

Due to secrecy, it is difficult to describe a typical fusion center. But if the Indiana Intelligence Fusion Center is typical, this is what one looks like:

Indiana’s center has essentially become an arm of Indiana law enforcement. . . . It has 31 full-time staffers and two part-time employees. Some . . . are state employees. Others are assigned to the center from other agencies, such as the FBI, Transportation Security Administration, and Marion County Sheriff’s Department. They are joined by workers from the Department of Correction, the Indiana National Guard, the Indiana State Police, the Department of Natural Resources and local campus police. . . . There are also private sector analysts on contract. Previously those analysts were from EG&G Technical Services of California. The most recent contract with EG&G called for payment of $1.1 million. . . .

Fusion centers invite reports from public employees such as firemen, ambulance drivers, and sanitation workers as well as from private-sector sources such as hospitals and neighborhood watch groups. They often operate tip hotlines; this means a “suspect’s” name could be submitted by a disgruntled employee, a hostile neighbor, or an ex-spouse who seeks child custody.

What or who is targeted by this sweeping coordination of data?

To get an idea, let’s look at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) program, which the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said “should be a national model.” In June 2008 the departments of Justice and Homeland Security recommended expansion of the LAPD program to other cities.

In April 2008 the Wall Street Journal reported on a new LAPD policy that compelled officers to report “suspicious behaviors” to the local fusion center. LAPD Special Order #11, dated March 5, 2008, defined a list of 65 suspicious behaviors, including using binoculars, taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent esthetic value,” abandoning a vehicle, taking notes, and espousing extremist views. Local police were converted into domestic surveillance agents.

Voices of caution were present from the inception of fusion centers. Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr stated: “Using the resources of federal and state law enforcement to encourage the citizenry to submit to the government information on the political, social and even religious views of other people, is in itself outrageous. For the government to then database that information, disseminate it widely, and clearly imply that views with which it may disagree provides an appropriate basis on which to surveil citizens and collect information on them, is beyond the pale. It is also a poor and inefficient use of police resources.”

Violation of privacy rights, excessive secrecy, lack of congressional oversight, the inevitability of inaccurate and noncorrectable information, the lack of due process for the accused, the encouragement of racial/religious profiling, the creation of a “snitch” nation, the political abuse of dissidents—the objections scroll on, followed by specific abuses that bear them out. Here’s a brief sample:

Specific Abuses

Maryland: Fifty-three nonviolent political activists, including antiwar and anti-death penalty activists, were labeled as terrorists and actively surveilled for 14 months.

Minnesota: Eight anarchist protesters who planned to protest the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis were preemptively arrested and charged with terrorism. In Minnesota, a crime can become terrorism if it disrupts the conduct of government.

Texas: A leaked intelligence bulletin from the North Central Texas Fusion System asked police officers to report on Islamic and antiwar lobbying groups.

Missouri: Supporters of third-party presidential candidates, pro-life activists, and conspiracy theorists were targeted as potential militia members.

Virginia: A terrorism threat assessment included certain universities as breeding grounds for terrorism, including historically black colleges.

A more comprehensive list of fusion abuse is available in the ACLU’s Survey of Reported Incidents [PDF]. See also the ACLU’s interactive map for what’s happening in your state [PDF].

Spying on the Peaceful

Clearly, the elaborate infrastructure of fusion centers has spied on peaceful citizens. Those who believe the abuses are aberrations, rather than an inherent or intended function, may argue that increased transparency will bring accountability and solve the problem. But that belief is naive. At least four reasons indicate that a lack of transparency and accountability are built into the system—the absence of real congressional oversight being number one.

Second, the ACLU and others have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests. They have had to fight tooth and nail for any scrap of information.

Third, as the ACLU notes, “[T]here appears to be an effort by the federal government to coerce states into exempting their fusion centers from state open-government laws. For those living in Virginia, it’s already too late; the Virginia General Assembly passed a law in April 2008 exempting the state’s fusion center from the Freedom of Information Act. According to comments by the commander of the Virginia State Police Criminal Intelligence Division and the administrative head of the center, the federal government pressured Virginia into passing the law. . . . [T]here is a real danger fusion centers will become a ‘one-way mirror’ in which citizens are subject to ever-greater scrutiny by the authorities, even while the authorities are increasingly protected from scrutiny by the public.”

Fourth, much of the information used by fusion centers comes from private databases such as Accurate, Choice Point, Lexis-Nexis, Locate Plus, insurance claims, and credit reports. Moreover, the centers access millions of government files like the Federal Trade Commission ID theft reports and DMV records. Why is this important? The federal government has adopted various laws to prevent the maintenance of databases on average Americans, but if fusion centers access the other existing files, they would bypass those laws.

A massive database on peaceful citizens, a tip hotline that encourages turning in neighbors, the casting of suspicion on daily activities, enlisting private workers as national surveillance agents—this is a police state in the making. And if its creation is invisible to most people, well, that is another characteristic of a police state. You are not a believer until it knocks on your door . . . in the middle of the night.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.