Police to get access to classified military intelligenceJohn Byrne
Sep. 16, 2009
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In a move raising eyebrows among civil liberties advocates, the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that it would give so-called local and state "fusion centers" access to classified military intelligence in Pentagon databases.
Fusion centers are hubs for local law enforcement, the private sector and the intelligence community, and were created in an effort to fight terrorism. There are more than seventy known centers across the United States.
The decision to give fusion centers access to classified intelligence appears to a shift in policy by Homeland Security. In July, Secretary Janet Napolitano "that fusion centers were not intended to have a military presence, and that she was not aware of ones that did," according to the New York Times.
The centers have been a flashpoint of criticism from civil liberties groups. The American Civil Liberties Union, in particular, has been a vehement critic.
"As fusion centers gain more and more access to Americans' private information, the information about them being made available to the American public remains woefully inadequate," Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement. "There is a stunning lack of oversight at these fusion centers and, as we've seen, these centers are rapidly becoming a breeding ground for overzealous intelligence activities. Opening the door for domestic law enforcement to gain access to classified military intelligence coupled with no guidelines restricting the military's role in fusion centers is a recipe for disaster."
In February, the ACLU highlighted a bulletin issued by a West Texas center. The Texas bulletin said it was "imperative for law enforcement officers to report" the activities of lobbying groups, Muslim civil rights organizations and anti-war protest groups in their region.
The model also took fire in April after a Virginia fusion center directive became public, which declared that US universities had become "radicalization node"s for potential terrorist activity "” singling out several historically black colleges. The memo also called out "hacktivism" as a potential terrorist threat.
Remarkably, among the fusion center's critics is the Justice Department itself. A December, 2008 "Privacy Impact Assessment" of the centers issued by the Department listed a number of key privacy weaknesses of the intelligence nexuses.
Among the problems listed were: "Justification for fusion centers; Ambiguous Lines of Authority, Rules, and Oversight; Participation of the Military and the Private Sector; Data Mining; Excessive Secrecy; Inaccurate or Incomplete Information; and Mission Creep."
Defenders take message to Congress
A Homeland Security proponent, Robert Riegle of the State and Local Program Office, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, defended the centers in testimony to Congress in April, saying they'd experienced numerous law enforcement successes as a result of information sharing.
"Fusion centers are the core means by which we promote Federal, State, local and Tribal information sharing. Today, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice recognize 70 fusion centers, including ones in every state and every major city of the United States," Riegle said. "Nearly half of these centers have been stood up since 2006 and have grown rapidly in number and effectiveness. Many fusion centers are in their infancy and many infrastructure challenges remain, but the successes that the centers have realized thus far give us good reason for our continued support."
"Fusion centers are force multipliers," Riegle added. "They leverage financial resources and the expertise of numerous public safety partners to increase information awareness and help our law enforcement agencies more effectively protect our communities. Thoughtful analysis about risks to our communities supports elected officials and homeland security leaders. This enables states and localities to better utilize limited financial resources to make effective, risk-based decisions about public safety matters and mitigate threats to the homeland."
The ACLU isn't so sure.
"Congress must take the necessary steps to ensure that a thorough and rigorous oversight mechanism is in place to ensure that Americans' most sensitive information is protected," the ACLU's legislative director said. "Without proper guidelines, fusion centers will continue to threaten our privacy while doing nothing to improve security."