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1984: More About Fusion Centers

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In November 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union issued its first report on fusion centers, rapidly developing multi-jurisdictional intelligence centers designed to organize local domestic information collection activities into an integrated system that can distribute data both horizontally across a network of fusion centers and vertically, down to local law enforcement and up to the federal intelligence community. These centers can employ officials from federal, state and local law enforcement and homeland security agencies, as well as other state and local government entities, the federal intelligence community, the military and even private companies, to spy on Americans in virtually complete secrecy.

We found that while fusion centers vary widely in what they do, five overarching problems with these domestic intelligence operations put Americans’ privacy and civil liberties at risk:

  1. Ambiguous Lines of Authority. In a multi-jurisdictional environment it is unclear what rules apply, and which agency is ultimately responsible for the activities of the fusion center participants.
  2. Private Sector Participation. Some fusion centers incorporate private-sector corporations into the intelligence process, potentially undermining privacy laws designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans, and increasing the risk of a data breach.
  3. Military Participation.Some fusion centers include military personnel in law enforcement activities in troubling ways.
  4. Data Mining. Federal fusion center guidelines encourage wholesale data collection and data manipulation processes that threaten privacy.
  5. Excessive Secrecy. Fusion centers are characterized 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.

We urged policymakers to examine this emerging network of fusion centers closely and, at a minimum, to put rigorous safeguards in place to ensure that they would not become the means for a new era of police intelligence abuses. There were 40 fusion centers when the report was published. Six months later there 58 fusion centers and a growing number of news reports illustrating the problems we identified, so in July 2008 we published a follow-up report. Today there are at least 72 fusion centers across the country.

Since these ACLU reports were published, a number of troubling intelligence products produced by fusion centers have leaked to the public:

  • A Texas fusion center released an intelligence bulletin that described a purported conspiracy between Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbying groups, the anti-war movement, a former U.S. Congresswoman, the U.S. Treasury Department and hip hop bands to spread Sharia law in the U.S.
  • The same month, but on the other side of the political spectrum, a Missouri Fusion Center released a report on “the modern militia movement” that claimed militia members are “usually supporters” of third-party presidential candidates like Ron Paul and Bob Barr.

  • In March 2008 the Virginia Fusion Center issued a terrorism threat assessmentthat described the state’s universities and colleges as “nodes for radicalization” and characterized the “diversity” surrounding a Virginia military base and the state’s “historically black” colleges as possible threats.
  • A DHS analyst at a Wisconsin fusion center prepared a report about protesters on both sides of the abortion debate, despite the fact that no violence was expected.

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