Fusing California

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Photo by Jim Sher/Flickr
Fusion centers exist to merge categories of personal information together that would otherwise remain separate.

When it comes to our personal information, many of us assume our privacy is protected. Most of our friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and family members know some things about us. Perhaps one or two loved ones know much about us. We certainly do not expect our personal information to be available to a random army of people we have never met. And yet America’s Network of Fusion Centers is setting out to do just that. We’ve all seen the iconic images of increasingly militarized policing in the United States feature tanks rolling through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and camouflage-wearing officers wielding assault weapons while patrolling downtown shopping districts. But law enforcement militarization also has invisible aspects, none more so than the surveillance data that flow out of a growing number of devices, ending up in places we might never expect.

Based on the idea that 21st century information-sharing among a large number of agencies—including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, National Security Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration, and local police, fire, hospital, and emergency departments—will provide a shield against acts of violence, the 78-strong national fusion-center network ensures that a lot of data follow us around wherever we go and whatever we do.

Fusion centers exist to merge categories of personal information together that would otherwise remain separate: crimes like drug possession and prostitution, medical records, meta-data telephone surveillance with emergency reports, and people threatening retaliation against U.S. interests abroad with domestic voices of protest. In other words, this makes as fluid as possible the definition of each agency’s targeted area of jurisdiction. There is probably not an American alive who has not been tracked by one of these agencies. Welcome to the terrorism database. You are in it. This is not rhetoric.

Davis Rittgers at the Cato Institute provided several cases demonstrating the ways fusion network centers use definitions of what constitutes a threat that not only collapse agency jurisdiction, but also basic civil rights protections and the bounds of common sense. For example, a North Texas fusion center had a threat category called “Muslim Lobbyists,” a fusion of the legally protected activity of talking to elected officials and that of practicing a religion in a country where freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution. Another fusion center in Missouri defined “Third Party Voters” as a potential terrorism threat, an act that takes aim at Nader voters, which is going a little too far. Other examples include the Maryland State Police placing anti–death penalty activists into a federal terrorism database, and on the other side of the partisan divide, Pennsylvania Homeland Security officers placing members of a local Tea Party group and Second Amendment advocates onto a watch list.

Since so much data from fusion centers is provided to the public in sketchy and incomplete form, it’s also very easy to make it seem like innocent people have been targeted because of their political beliefs. It is possible that in addition to their political beliefs, some individual’s drug consumption habits, medical records, and traffic tickets have exposed patterns that cause legitimate concern. Perhaps the fusion center analysts were able to put together missing pieces that allowed a future violent criminal to pass as a garden variety death penalty activist or Capitol Hill lobbyist of the Muslim persuasion.

But what serves as federal oversight of the national network of fusion centers does not support this optimistic theory. A bipartisan report to the Senate in 2009–2010 reported fusion centers processed 22,000 suspicious activity reports that year. They launched 1,000 investigations. Two hundred pieces of data provided actionable intelligence, translating to nine-tenths of one percent of all information processed.

By 2012, with more fusion centers up and running, and a more extensive report back to the Senate, similar non-terroristic incidents were reported, without compensatory benefits. Among the highlights identified by the ACLU, one drug-smuggling activity report featured two fisherman in a bass boat who avoided eye contact and whose boat was low in the water. The Senate report stated “the fact that some guys were hanging out in a boat where people do not normally fish might be an indicator of something abnormal but does not reach the threshold of something we should be reporting and should never have been nominated for production nor passed through three reviews.”

Another suspicious activity report featured a foreigner with an expired visa caught shoplifting. The assessment in the October 3, 2012 Senate report declared, “I am stunned this report got as far as it did because the entire knowledge about the subject was that he tried to steal a pair of shoes from Neiman Marcus. I have no idea what value this would be adding to the intelligence community.”

The Mongols Motorcycle Club earned a suspicious activity report from a California fusion center for a leaflet issued to members describing how to behave when stopped by police. The leaflet recommended motorcyclists be courteous, control their emotions, and have a designated driver when necessary.

A fusion center supervisor commented on the report as follows: “There is nothing illegal or even remotely objectionable described in this report and the advice given to members is protected by the Fourth Amendment.” It’s also pretty good advice.

By 2014, the last National Network on Fusion Centers report announced “the percentage of Suspicious Activity Reporting (SARs) submitted by fusion centers that resulted in the initiation or enhancement of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation increased from 3.3 percent in 2013 to 5.5 percent in 2014.” That means 94.5 percent of SARs generated by the fusion centers did not merit any investigation at all.

These incidents are not just humorous. They illustrate problems that have already been identified in federal report after federal report: ambiguous lines of authority; excessive data mining; inaccurate or incomplete information; unclear relationships with the military and the private sector; and mission creep. The vast majority of SARs targeted subjects based on commonplace activities. Thousands of dossiers of suspicion are filled with Muslim lobbyists, death penalty activists, motorcyclists, and misplaced fishermen.

How much we are paying to collect these tens of thousands of fused together suspicions is not entirely clear. Estimates run from $300 million to $1.4 billion a year and tend to be interwoven through larger agency budgets without the clearest of demarcations. This is also true regarding line-item budget lines for the fusion centers whose expenses can be tracked. The San Diego fusion center’s 2012 budget line item described as “open source intelligence” turned out to be the purchase of 55 flat screen televisions.

The physical location of fusion centers is very hard to find. Digging around in my home state of California, here’s what I found. At least 25 states, per the 2014 report, contain only one fusion center responsible for the entire state. But California has a cornucopia, with fusion center activities documented in Silverado (Orange County), Norwalk (Los Angeles Metro), McClellan (Sacramento), Mather (Tuolumne County), San Diego, and in San Francisco’s federal building.

Even though the street addresses of the fusion centers can generally be found online, that does not mean that one can just take a stroll over and see what is being done to protect us. In 2014, interested in paying a visit to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), located on the 14th floor of San Francisco’s Federal building, I called 13 times and e-mailed 17 times in four months to inquire how to visit the fusion center as a journalist. There was never a reply. The only time a telephone call was answered, the startled employee said he did not know, indicated he would transfer me to someone who did, promptly disconnected the call, and then declined to answer the return call. Hence, the information in this article about my hometown fusion center is exclusively what could be gleaned from the NCRIC website.

NCRIC is located on the 14th floor of the federal building at 450 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco. Unlike many of the fusion centers, it has a detailed website filled with information, much of which is directed toward the private sector with which NCRIC is eager to partner. Among other things, the website features an extensive calendar of courses, making the fusion center a veritable new school of surveillance-related workshops. Courses available during the summer of 2014 included: Emergency Response to Domestic Biological Incidents; Information Cultivation and Management in Dublin via the California Association of Narcotics Officers; Electronic Surveillance (wiretapping); Investigations in Eureka via the Drug Endangered Children Training Center; Terrorism Liaison Officers (TLO) Advanced—Sovereign Citizen Extremism, an Emerging Threat; Medical Marijuana from the Streets to the Dispensaries; Search Warrants A–Z; and Homemade Explosives and IEDs.

The private sector program, noted by NCRIC as being one of the most progressive in the nation, is open to owners or employees with management, supervisory, or analytical responsibility related to personal or physical safety, technology security, emergency management, business continuity, or resiliency in 15 different industries, who join the “National Homeland Security Information Network” (HSIN). By inviting the private sector so enthusiastically into the business of government surveillance, NCRIC not only further muddies the jurisdictional boundaries of everyone involved, but creates the same sort of expanded private sector marketplace that the flow of re-purposed military equipment into local police departments has generated for the military industrial complex.

Fusion centers defeat the very idea of government oversight of law enforcement. By bringing so many agencies together in one soupy stew, the network of fusion centers ensures that no single set of existing regulatory codes applies, essentially throwing overboard years of brakes put on law enforcement to prevent abuses. After all, what rule exactly applies to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the San Jose Fire Department, not to mention DuPont Industries? The fusion centers, working with data from all three, can pick the set of rules via policy-shopping that best lets them do what they want to do.

It’s always been an important part of the American mythic world, if not the real one, that this is a country where we can “start fresh,” shake off the shackles of the past, be it a previous country or a miserable childhood, and reinvent ourselves as the person we always wanted to be. The mass incarceration system, however, with its disproportionate sentencing, racial profiling, and three strikes laws, has always starkly undermined the myth that where we start out does not have much to do with where we end up. As it has grown in scale and acquired bigger and better tools including significant chunks of the military arsenal, we are wise to remember that freedom can never include a permanent ankle bracelet detailing every foible to a bureaucrat in a badly lit room thousands of miles away. The fusion of our public and private selves is an amplification of the fusion of the invading army of conquest with neighborhood beat cops on patrol. There are no more boundaries between the two.

Tracy Rosenberg has been Media Alliance’s Executive Director since 2007. She has organized and advocated for a free, accountable, and accessible communications system for two decades and blogs on media policy for many outlets across the country. Reprinted from Peace Review (April-June 2016), a journal of social justice.

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