Law enfarcers are working off of the wrong profiles–and getting paid anyways.
Although originally justified as an antiterrorism initiative to improve information sharing and collection at the local level, fusion centers rapidly drifted toward an “all-crimes, all-hazards” policy that is “flexible enough for use in all emergencies,” not just those specifically linked to terrorism. Mission creep is significant because 1) it undercuts the political justification for the network as a critical counterterrorism tool, and 2) it opens the door for surveillance and repression of protected free speech activity in order to “counter radicalization” or otherwise prevent “disorder” or nonviolent civil disobedience.
The vast majority of fusion centers now track major or organized crimes such as narcotics, violence and gangs, sexual offenses, or crimes that may be used to support terrorism efforts, or not. Rather than each department or squad having its own databases, fusion centers allow access to multiple databases and sources of intelligence; the drug squad in one community can share information with the anti-gang task force in another, picking up on patterns that may suggest an emerging threat as gangs set up to move into a new market or distribute new contraband. In addition, fusion centers assist with manhunts that cross jurisdictions, as when a baby was stolen in Tennessee and a serial killer went on a shooting spree in North Carolina.
The leaders of some fusion centers have admitted that they switched to an “all-hazards” approach so they could apply for a broader range of grants, and because there was far too little terrorism-related information to analyze. They were agencies in need of a mission. According to documents provided to the Massachusetts ACLU, in 2006 the Massachusetts fusion center analyzed copper theft for four outside partners, studied school violence at five schools, investigated calls for fire department service, conducted three studies for the gang working group, while also compiling reports on port security, transportation security, gang assessments, and prisoner radicalization. Counter-terrorism is not their exclusive, let alone primary, priority.
The lack of a narrowly defined mission poses unnecessary risks to civil liberties.
The lack of a narrowly defined mission poses unnecessary risks to civil liberties. One fusion center study postulated that “there is, more often than not, insufficient purely ‘terrorist’ activity to support a multi-jurisdictional, multi-governmental level fusion center that exclusively processes terrorist activity.” Consequently, there is a risk that analysts’ skills could atrophy as would their interest, from a lack of relevant work.
In the absence of purely terrorist activity, DHS’s emphasis on “ensuring that our communities are not places where violent extremism can take root” may invite fusion centers to identify local threats based on political rhetoric that is critical of government policies. Evidence suggests this is already happening. In February 2009, North Central Texas Fusion System issued a “Prevention Awareness Bulletin” calling on law enforcement to report the activities of Muslim civil rights organizations and antiwar protest groups. In March 2009, the Missouri State Highway Patrol was forced to halt the distribution of a report prepared by the Missouri Information Analysis Center that linked extremists in the modern militia movement to supporters of third-party presidential candidates such as Congressman Ron Paul of Texas and former Congressman Bob Barr of Iowa. The report also said that some militia members subscribe to anti-abortion beliefs or oppose illegal immigration – suggestions that created a public uproar among law-abiding groups concerned that they were being lumped in with violent, dangerous people.
The Virginia Fusion Center identified “subversive thought” as a marker for violent terrorism.
Furthermore, the Virginia Fusion Center’s 2009 Threat Assessment identified “subversive thought” as a marker for violent terrorism and thus targeted “university-based student groups as a radicalization node for almost every type of extremist group.” In words reminiscent of “communist front” theory dating to the Cold War, Virginia Fusion Center analysts warned of the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged strategy of boring from within by infiltrating different Islamic organizations and obtaining leadership roles. DHS also monitored the D.C. Anti-War Network and shared information with the Maryland State Police – most likely through the fusion center – during a year-long infiltration of Baltimore area peace and social justice organizations in 2007-2008.