'Fusion centers' gather terrorism intelligence – and much more
Designed to share data and head off attacks, the 72 offices in the
are starting to worry civil libertarians. U.S.
By Ken Dilanian, Tribune
November 15, 2010
About a year ago, a police officer in
Sure enough, the pallets were stolen.
Cracking down on pallet thieves wasn't quite the mission envisioned for "fusion centers," 72 facilities across the country that were started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks to improve information-sharing and threat analysis among local law enforcement.
The centers, which have received $426 million in federal funding since 2004, were designed as an early warning system against the next attack. Lately, amid the recent uptick in homegrown plots, the Homeland Security Department has been touting fusion centers as a means of thwarting domestic terrorism.
But it turns out that homegrown terrorism pales in frequency and fatalities compared with typical street crime, so many of the centers have begun collecting and distributing criminal intelligence, even of the most mundane kind.
In the process, Homeland Security Department officials say, the centers are developing a system to receive, sort and share crucial information. And they say it's too soon to judge the program, which is likely to grow in importance as a tool in detecting terrorism before it erupts.
"I'm a big supporter because of their potential," said Mohamed Elibiary, a Texas-based Muslim activist who advises the Homeland Security Department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. "If you want the government to function effectively, you need proper information sharing and analysis."
Critics argue that the centers are another potential intrusion on citizens' rights, and that having 72 of them guarantees bureaucratic overkill. Many centers make extensive use of private contractors. And the methods used are inconsistent from one to the next, raising questions about whether some of them are performing vital work.
"We thought if we just threw the name out there, built a bunch of them, we'd feel a lot better," former
Homeland Security Department officials say that by the end of the year, all 72 fusion centers will have to demonstrate competency in four key areas, showing that they are able to receive classified threat information from the federal government; analyze that information in a local context; disseminate it to local agencies; and gather tips from the public.
Civil liberties activists point to a series of privacy and civil rights flaps associated with fusion centers. They say the public is kept in the dark about what databases analysts are searching, what information they are gathering and what drives their priorities.
Information sharing is "a laudable goal," but "is this worth the risk to privacy and civil liberties?" asked Michael German, a former FBI agent who is national security counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We certainly have a long history of police intelligence powers, so we know that this is a problematic approach to policing."
Fusion centers don't conduct criminal investigations. Instead, analysts, who are borrowed from federal, state and local agencies, dive into dozens of databases to develop threat assessments and make sense of emerging trends.
Homeland Security Department officials and fusion center officers say they pay close attention to civil and privacy rights.
Analysts at the centers don't run names without "reasonable suspicion," a decades-old law enforcement standard, officials say, and they don't have access to such records as credit card transactions without a court-approved search warrant.
There have been lapses. A
"I really believe that [abuses] are the exception, not the rule," said Bart Johnson, who supervises fusion centers for the Homeland Security Department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The agency requires each fusion center to have a privacy and civil liberties policy, he said.
That's necessary because analysts have access to a variety of commercial and government databases that can produce a stream of personal information, including unlisted phone numbers and other details not readily available to the public.
That can be useful. In 2008, after the poison ricin was found in a
The man left a phone number but not a name. Computer searches on the number led them to the man. "It turned out there was no ricin; he was mentally ill," Brooks said.
"Nobody knew who to call, so they called us," he said. "That's the beauty of fusion centers. When you harness the power of eyes and ears of 18,000 state and local and tribal departments — 840,000 cops … that's a lot of eyes and ears on the ground."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has started an initiative, tried first in
More than two-thirds of the
"This isn't TV," said Harvey Eisenberg, the federal prosecutor who runs the
Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times
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