Civil Liberty Concerns Could Become a Factor in Grants to State Fusion Centers

By Matthew Harwood

In response to past incidents of improper intelligence collection efforts directed against legal U.S. groups, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has reemphasized its commitment to civil liberties and privacy protections, including creating a possible connection between those policies and grant awards at the state and local level.

Yesterday’s revelation that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gathered intelligence in 2007 on the Chicago-based Nation of Islam group again raised the specter of civil rights violations in the name of homeland security. 
To its credit, DHS discovered the intelligence gathering violations and acted swiftly to remedy the situations. “Hours after the report was issued in 2007, officials recalled it, deciding it violated intelligence rules against collecting or disseminating information on U.S. citizens,” reported the Associated Press in the Chicago Sun-Times.
While the incident highlights the importance of having protections in place, it also calls for a closer look at how those not abiding by civil liberty restrictions will be held accountable—an issue that Security Management was exploring even before the latest news broke.
One concern is that much intelligence collection and analysis happens at the local, state, and regional levels at fusion centers where the actors may not be under the direct purview of DHS.
Fusion centers began after the 9-11 attacks as a grassroots effort within cities, regions, and states to share information to prevent terrorist attacks. They bring together law enforcement and intelligence personnel from state, local, and federal government into one building to collect, analyze, vet, and disseminate intelligence to first responders on the ground as well as up the federal chain. The centers are considered one key post-9-11 response to help law enforcement "connect the dots" and disrupt terrorist plots before an attack can occur.
Domestic Surveillance Fears
Civil libertarians have been suspicious of fusion centers since their creation, fearing a return to the days of COINTELPRO, a secret FBI surveillance program of American radicals from the mid-1950s until the early-1970s. Critics, however, never had evidence to support such fears. That changed in the winter of 2009 when two leaked intelligence reports issued by fusion centers in Missouri and Texas cast suspicion on fringe groups associated with the far left and the far right. The February strategic report from the Missouri Intelligence Analysis Center (MIAC)  described the resurgence of the modern militia movement and fueled outrage by conflating support for former presidential candidates Rep. Ron Paul and former congressman Bob Barr with support for right-wing militias.
Also in February, the North Central Texas Fusion System (NCTFS) issued a "prevention awareness bulletin" telling police officers that certain elements of the Muslim-American community are attempting to institute Islamic law that "could ultimately change American life and laws." The report also alleged that anti-war leftist groups were aiding Islamic extremist groups in an effort to end what they see as U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.
"Given the stated objectives of these lobbying groups and the secretive activities of radical Islamic organizations," the report stated, "it is imperative for law enforcement officers to report these types of activities to identify potential underlying trends emerging in the North Central Texas region."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) decried the leaked NCTFS report.
“The idea that the tolerance advocated by the groups being targeted would be treated as a menace to American security demonstrates a disregard for civil liberties and a disdain for democracy itself," Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "The kind of indiscriminate and unlawful investigations this bulletin calls for always results in a chilling effect on free speech and association.”
A little more than a month later, the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A)—which provides intelligence support to state-based fusion centers—came under a firestorm of criticism for producing an internal threat assessment on rightwing extremism. The report identified returning veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as possible terrorist recruits, much like former veteran Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. The report speculated that right-wing extremists might target returning soldiers for radicalization to exploit and harness their military knowledge and skills.The report was quickly recalled from state and local law enforcement and pulled by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in May.
And yesterday came the aforementioned revelations about intelligence collection on the Nation of Islam, which was discovered when the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. In addition to the 2007 incident, there was documentation that in 2008, I&A also improperly collected and retained information on a Muslim conference in Georgia and its intended speakers, some of whom were U.S. citizens, despite no links to terrorism. In that case, as in the 2007 incident before it, I&A policed itself by deleting or destroying the information collected on the Muslim conference and its American speakers.

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