On the heels of the Maryland State Police spying scandal, the ACLU is ringing the alarms over "fusion centers."
These are the state-by-state groupings of various law enforcement agencies working together at all levels, from local police to the FBI, NSA, and CIA, ostensibly to share terrorism threat information. But, as we saw in the Maryland case, they may sometimes just be sharing information about lawful, peaceful First Amendment-protected speech.
There is "mission creep from watching out for terrorism to watching out for peace activists," said Caroline Frederickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a press conference July 29. She called the fusion centers an incipient "domestic intelligence apparatus." And she warned that the kind of spying that occurred in Maryland was "very dangerous to our democracy."
In December 2007, the ACLU published a report "What's Wrong with Fusion Centers?"
It noted that there are more than 40 fusion centers already created. And it cited several problems with them, including the participation of military personnel in law enforcement, as well as "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."
On July 29, the ACLU issued an update to that report.
The fusion centers represent an attempt to create a "total surveillance society," the update says.
It notes that the LAPD fed into its fusion center an array of ""suspicious activity reports" that included such innocuous activities as "taking notes" or "drawing diagrams" or "using binoculars." (Since one out of six Americans is a birdwatcher, this last item could really swell the files.)
The "suspicious activity" criteria of the LAPD "gives law enforcement officers justification to harass practically anyone they choose, to collect personal information, and to pass such information along to the intelligence community," the update says. Frighteningly, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has called the LAPD program "a national model."
The Director of National Intelligence urges state and local law enforcement to "report non-criminal suspicious activities," the update says. According to the standards of the Director of National Intelligence, these activities are defined as "observed behavior that may be indicative of intelligence gathering or pre-operational planning related to terrorism, criminal, or other illicit intention."
The ACLU notes that "other illicit intention" is not defined, and that fusion centers are fed intelligence before "reasonable suspicion" is established.
Fusion centers also engage in data mining, as they rely not only on FBI and CIA records. They also often "have subscriptions with private data brokers such as Accurint, ChoicePoint, Lexis-Nexus, and LocatePlus, a database containing cell phone numbers and unpublished telephone records," the ACLU notes, referring to a Washington Post article from April 2.
The ACLU calls fusion centers "out-of-control data-gathering monsters."
While the government is gathering more and more information about us citizens, it's trying to shield itself from telling us what it's doing. "There appears to be an effort by the federal government to coerce states into exempting their fusion centers from state open government laws," the ACLU notes. "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."
As I noted in "The New Snoops: Terrorism Liaison Officers, Some from the Private Sector" with "Fusion Center Guidelines" that flat-out recommend that "fusion centers and their leadership encourage appropriate policymakers to legislate the protection of private sector data provided to fusion centers."
The ACLU is absolutely right: Congress must investigate these fusion centers and exercise appropriate oversight before law enforcement agencies and their private sector partners violate the rights of more Americans and usher us all into the total surveillance society.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.
Copyright 2008 The Progressive Magazine