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The Shadowy Spying Networks Transforming Post-9/11 Policing

Report exposes new intelligence sharing practices that steamroll civil liberties and accelerate racial profiling

Sarah Lazare, staff writer

The post-9/11 explosion of local law enforcement intelligence gathering and "counter-terrorism" efforts—including the growth of a national network of "joint terrorism task forces" and "fusion centers"—violates civil liberties and perpetuates racial and ethnic profiling while dodging meaningful oversight or standardization, all with hefty backing from federal grants.

So finds a report released Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice—a public policy institute at the New York University School of Law.

This study, based on dozens of freedom of information requests as well as studies of 16 major police departments, 19 fusion centers, and 14 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, tracks the dramatic post-September 11th growth of national networks of intelligence and "counter-terrorism" units.

"What we found was organized chaos: a federally subsidized, loosely coordinated system for sharing information that is collected according to varying local standards with insufficient quality control, accountability, or oversight," the report reads.

"There are some pretty nondescript guidelines that the federal government has issued directing law enforcement to report various activities, but it is up to local police departments to implement those," explained Michael Price, author of the study and counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, in an interview with Common Dreams. "When you don't have clear guidance, people fall back on biases and preconceptions."

"That has led to surveillance of first amendment protected activities, including protests and photography," he added. "Law enforcement reports on people who are from the Middle East or appear to be. You will see reports coming in saying that Middle Eastern men were taking photographs. There is a profiling concern."

In some areas, police have used new "counter-terrorism" intelligence gathering and sharing powers to spy on Muslim communities with no evidence of wrongdoing, the report notes.

Numerous nation-wide "fusion centers," which are funded by the Department of Justice but under state or local control, are operating as ill-defined counter-terrorism intelligence gathering and sharing centers. These centers snoop and share data with federal agencies, and even the military, with no clear purpose or rules. "In the absence of any significant federal, state, or local oversight, fusion centers continue to play by their own rules," the study finds.

"Joint terrorism task forces," headed by the FBI and coordinating data sharing between the Department of Homeland Security, the military, Immigration and Custom's enforcement, and other agencies, conduct terrorism investigations behind a veil of secrecy, with insufficient transparency to the public or even the local law enforcement participating in them, the study charges.

This report springboards from previous findings from the ACLU that post-September 11, 2001 surveillance constitutes a civil rights and racial profiling nightmare.

"I don't think these networks are making people safer," said Price. "I think it is doing the opposite."


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