Senate Report: Counterterrorism “Fusion Centers” Invade Innocent Americans’ Privacy and Don’t Stop Terrorism
The Department of Homeland Security’s 70 counterterrrorism “fusion centers” produce “predominantly useless information,” “a bunch of crap,” while “running afoul of departmental guidelines meant to guard against civil liberties” and are “possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.”
These may sound like the words of EFF, but in fact, these conclusions come from a new report issued by a US Senate committee. At the cost of up to $1.4 billion, these fusion centers are supposed to facilitate local law enforcement sharing of valuable counterterrorism information to DHS, but according to the report, they do almost everything but.
DHS described its fusion centers as “one of the centerpieces of [its] counterterrorism strategy” and its database was supposed to be a central repository of known or “appropriately suspected” terrorists. In theory, local law enforcement officers, in conjunction with DHS officials, conduct surveillance and write up a report—known as a Homeland Intelligence Report (HIR)—for DHS to review. If credible, DHS would then spread the information to the larger intelligence community.
Yet, the Senate report found the fusion centers failed to uncover a single terrorist threat. Instead, like so many post-9/11 surveillance laws passed under the vague guise of “national security,” the system was overwhelmingly used for ordinary criminal investigations, while at the same time facilitating an egregious amount of violations of innocent Americans’ rights.
An entire section of the Senate report is dedicated to Privacy Act violations and the collection of information completely unrelated to any criminal or terrorist activity in the HIRs. In one instance, a DHS intelligence officer filed a draft report about a US citizen who appeared at a Muslim organization to deliver a day-long motivational talk and a lecture on positive parenting. In another, one intelligence officer decided to report on two men who were fishing at the US-Mexican border. A reviewer commented, “I… think that this should never have been nominated for production, nor passed through three reviews.” A report was even initiated on a motorcycle group for passing out leaflets informing members of their legal rights. A reviewer commented, “The advice given to the groups’ members is protected by the First Amendment.”
Over and over again the Senate report quotes reviewers chastising DHS officials for recording constitutionally protected activities and for publishing such reports. One reviewer wrote, “The number of things that scare me about this report are almost too many to write into this [review] form.” In some cases, DHS retained cancelled draft reports that may have contained information in violation of the Privacy Act for a year or more after the date of the reports’ cancellation. Worse, the intelligence officials responsible “faced no apparent sanction for their transgressions.”
While it’s commendable the Senate exposing these civil liberties violations, the problems detailed in the report are not new. Since the government started its various information sharing programs after 9/11, media organizations have extensively documented how, when they’re not being outright abused by local law enforcement, are overwhelmingly used for ordinary investigations that had nothing to do with terrorism. EFF has long warned that completely innocent Americans’ privacy has become collateral damage in the government’s thirst to collect more and more digital information on its own citizens.
Even DHS’ own internal audits of the fusion centers showed they didn’t work, according to the Senate report. The privacy disaster is also a boondoggle for taxpayers: DHS can’t account for much of the money it spent on the program, estimating they spent between $289 million and $1.4 billion—a discrepancy of more than $900 million dollars.
Despite these facts, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines in March for the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) that dramatically expanded the NCTC’s information sharing powers. The NCTC can now mirror entire federal databases containing personal information and hold onto the information for ten times longer than they could before—even if the person is not suspected of any involvement in terrorism. Journalist Marcy Wheeler summed up the new guidelines at the time, saying, “So…the data the government keeps to track our travel, our taxes, our benefits, our identity? It just got transformed from bureaucratic data into national security intelligence.”
Now that the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has issued this unusually harsh report lambasting the same type of information sharing centers, Eric Holder should also rescind his new data retention guidelines for NCTC counterterrorism centers until new safeguards are put in place. EFF also joins the ACLU’s call for full Congressional hearings on the DHS fusion centers. In fact, the government should issue a moratorium on all fusion centers until this problem is fixed. Local governments can also prevent their law enforcement agencies from participating.
While “information sharing” centers were sold to the American people as providing “a vital role in keeping communities safe all across America,” it’s clear all they’ve done is play a vital role in violating American’s civil liberties.
There is a constituency for the right to assemble and protest in this country, but it appears as if that constituency has very little representation in the U.S. Congress. The Senate unanimously passed a law that has significant ramifications for the Occupy movement or anyone else that wants to exercise their First Amendment rights. H.R. 347 is also known as the Trespass Bill. Only three members of the House voted against it, all of them Republicans, including presidential contender Ron Paul. None of the major civil liberties organizations raised a fuss, either, but the silence will surely come back to haunt us.
The bill makes it a federal crime punishable by a year in prison for “trespassing” on places where someone under protection of the Secret Service is also present, and up to ten years if a weapon is involved, or someone is seriously injured. The restrictions cover not just the president, but also presidential candidates and foreign dignitaries and heads of state. The new version of the law makes protesters subject to felony prosecution even if they were unaware that people protected by the Secret Service were in the area. Rather than demonstrators freely congregating to protest the presence of their least favored presidential politicians, or to loudly demand that visiting foreign leaders go back home, would-be protesters would be best-advised by their lawyers to stay as far away as possible or face a long stretch in prison. Surely, that stands the right to peacefully assemble on its head.
Even more ominously, the new law allows the Department of Homeland Security to designate whole areas as part of a so-called National Security Event Zone, off limits to protest. The United National Anti-War Coalition and others that are planning to demonstrate at the meeting of NATO nations, in Chicago, in late May, will almost certainly be confronted with, not only Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s aggressive protest containment policies, but a Homeland Security declaration putting large areas under a federal protective bubble, with even more serious criminal consequences. In the real, often chaotic whirl of mass outdoor protest, with police pushing crowds from place to place, and protesters trying to make themselves heard, large numbers of demonstrators could find themselves in a federal no-go zone. Under the old rules, the harshest penalties could be imposed only on those who “willfully” crossed into a National Security Event Zone. The new Trespass Bill omits the word “willfully,” so that anyone who is caught “trespassing” in the Zone, whether they knew it was restricted or not, is liable for felony prosecution. This brings to mind the mass arrests of Occupy demonstrators on Brooklyn Bridge, last year. Many in the crowd thought they were being escorted across the bridge by police, and were not willfully trespassing. Under the federal bill, lack of willfulness is no excuse.
What is more disturbing than the potential Bill of Rights-eroding aspects of the legislation, is the Congress’s cavalier attitude towards civil liberties. There was no debate. The only No votes came from Tea Party Republicans. Democrats behaved as if nothing important was happening, just as when President Bill Clinton first came up with the idea National Security Event Zones – where the public, by law, has nothing to say.
Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
- One year after FBI subpoena, civil liberties protections in US frighteningly eroded even further (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Goodbye, First Amendment: ‘Trespass Bill’ will make protest illegal (alethonews.wordpress.com)