Established as counterterrorism intelligence units after 9/11 to take in, analyze and share terrorist plots between federal, state and local police, dozens of fusion centers exist across the U.S.
But far from an efficient network of intelligence sharing they have become a sprawling national security apparatus dedicated to monitoring dissent far beyond their original statutory mission.
The information collected and analyzed is through the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis (I&A), which forwards its intelligence to local officials.
The outcome of the sharing of this “intelligence” under the guise of preventing terrorism was on display in Portland and other major cities where demonstrators, protesting racial injustice and police brutality, came face-to-face with federal law enforcement agents.
DHS claims it has the statutory authority to deploy federal officials to cities based on intelligence gathered by I&A. But the agency does not appear to be concerned that I&A assessments are infamous for inaccuracy, have proven useless in preventing terrorism and are based on information collected without the knowledge or consent of Americans.
The information fusion centers collect appear to be reporting on upcoming protests, including hoaxes posted on Facebook. Yet this doesn’t deter DHS from using its main intelligence branch to target protesters the agency has already tagged as “violent anarchists.”
Compounding general suspicions and criticisms of fusion centers is the fact that despite millions of taxpayer dollars poured into them, a 2012 investigation by a Senate committee found deep flaws in the core operations of the centers.
The investigation and subsequent probes found data from the centers were often flawed and based on activity unrelated to terrorism, including First Amendment-protected endeavors.
Eight years after Congress recommended significant reforms, a recent report found fusion centers continue to improperly collect and share inaccurate surveillance information about Americans with local authorities necessitating the need for stronger congressional oversight.
Laws such as the Privacy Act and the First Amendment, protect Americans from having their information collected by the U.S. government, and according to DHS regulations any information collected “incidentally” on Americans should be destroyed but a congressional investigation found that DHS routinely violates these requirements.
While the Privacy Act and other statutory authorities explicitly ban fusion centers from collecting information on U.S. citizens, data is collected by local police and federal partners and uploaded to the Homeland Security Information Network.
The network subsequently exchanges information between police agencies across the country, other fusion centers, and federal counter-terrorism agencies with little oversight and accountability.
DHS’ collection of even public information on Americans is problematic since a significant amount of the data gathered has no reasonable connection to potential violence, much less to counterterrorism.
In Portland, police chief Chuck Lovell admitted to coordinating with federal agents as protests raged through the city against police brutality and the unwanted involvement of federal law enforcement officials.
Similarly, Chicago’s fusion center, the Crime and Information Prevention Center (CPIC), has a policy of being notified of “any significant or newsworthy event occurring within the city” (emphasis theirs). Back in 2015, an official at the U.S. State Department emailed CPIC about planned protests over the death of Michael Brown.
A CPIC official wrote back, stating: “some of this information describes First Amendment-protected activities,” but that it would continue to monitor the protests and “communicate these events with other law enforcement partners.”
The dangers of fusion centers are not limited to information sharing; among its rosters are officers deputized with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), a multi-agency network of law enforcement and intelligence specialists.
JTTF agents have a long history of showing up at the doorsteps of activists, sometimes after indiscriminate arrests at protests. In one account, a JTTF agent, who spied on anti-war demonstrations for the Boston fusion center, turned up unannounced at the home of a journalist inquiring about upcoming demonstrations.
Although the FBI has stated repeatedly that it does not police ideology, the White House has dismissed that pretense arguing it would go after perceived left-wing protesters. It has even publicly considered declaring anti-fascists, Antifa, a terrorist organization, although the movement has no real leaders.
America’s reckoning on race and police brutality is affording us an extraordinary glimpse into the practices of the shadowy and unaccountable network of fusion centers that collect intelligence on Americans under a façade of fighting terrorism.
As the federal government increasingly seeks to punish citizens engaging in protests, it has also left us with an unsettling knowledge that Americans’ First Amendment rights are at stake if Congress doesn’t engage in stronger oversight of these centers.