Feds Tout New Domestic Intelligence Centers
Feds Tout New Domestic Intelligence Centers
By Ryan Singel
March 20, 2008 | 8:02:57 PM
(Wired Magazine) – Federal, state and local cops are huddling together in domestic intelligence dens around the nation to fuse anti-terror information and tips in ways they never have before, and they want the American people to know about it — sort of.
Some of the nation’s top law enforcement and anti-terror officials got together to hold press briefings Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at the second annual National Fusion Center conference held in San Francisco.
Homeland Security Under Secretary Charlie Allen, formerly of the CIA, described how sharing threat assessments, and even the occasional raw intel, with the new fusion centers marks a cultural shift from the Cold War era. Back then, spies treated everyone, other departments and agencies included, as suspicious.
"Things have changed remarkably in Washington. We are talking to each other," Allen said Tuesday. "I am from the shadows of the CIA where in the Cold War, we followed a different model. That model does not apply for the kinds of threats we have today that are borderless. The threats are so different and so remarkably dangerous for our citizens."
The fifty or so U.S. fusion centers are where the federal, state and local cops share intelligence, sift data for clues, run down reports of suspicious packages and connect dots in an effort to detect and thwart terrorism attacks, drug smuggling and gang fighting.
Privacy and civil liberties groups are increasingly suspicious of the fusion centers, but state and local officials have complained for years that the feds don’t share any useful information. The 9/11 Commission agreed, blaming the CIA and FBI’s lack of information-sharing for wasted chances to stop the airline hijackings. The commission strongly urged they change their ways and put holes in so-called "stove pipes." And in 2007, the Democrats boosted fusion centers’ stature and funding in the first bill they passed after taking control of Congress.
More than $130 million federal dollars have fed the development of the fusion centers in locations as diverse as Kansas and Northern California.
On Tuesday, San Francisco police chief Heather Fong said the information flow was getting better, especially around big events being held in the city.
"When we get information, it’s not how much can we amass and keep to ourselves," Fong said. "It’s how much information can we obtain but appropriately share so that it positively assists others in doing their jobs around the country and the world."
The dominant catchphrase from the officials was that the centers need to focus on "all threats, all hazards." That means that the fusion centers would be working on immigration, radicalization, demographic changes, hurricanes, biological and chemical threats, as well as common criminal activity. Officials say the centers must look at even the most mundane crimes, since they can be used to fund terrorism.
By way of example, Los Angeles police chief Bratton cites the investigation of a string of gas station stick-ups in L.A. in 2005. The robbery investigation led to the prosecution of militant Muslim convicts who were planning attacks on synagogues. That, Bratton said, illustrates why these intelligence centers need to be analyzing run-of-the-mill crimes.
"Information that might seem innocuous may have some connection to terrorism," Bratton said.
But critics say that "all hazards, all threats" approach sounds suspiciously like the government is building a distributed domestic intelligence service that could easily begin keeping tabs on Americans exercising their First Amendment rights. The scope also seems at odds with the federal government’s Information Sharing Environment guidelines, which say these centers are supposed to focus on terrorism.
Earlier this year, the ACLU issued a warning report about Fusion Centers, complete with an interactive fusion center map, earlier this year. The report, entitled What’s Wrong With Fusion Centers, cited concerns about military units operating in the centers, as well as the potential for scope creep and data mining. How, the group asked, can citizens contest information about themselves, given the patchwork of state, local and federal sunshine laws that may or may not apply.
But in a conference keynote Tuesday, Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-California), a powerful force in intelligence matters and funding, pooh-poohed the ACLU’s concerns, and said she supported both fusion centers, and civil liberties.
"I was frustrated when I met with the [ACLU] report authors and they could not point to a single instance of a fusion center violating someone’s civil rights or liberties," Harman said. "In fact, state and local laws and protections in place at many fusion centers are more rigorous than their federal counterparts."
Tim Sparapani, the ACLU’s top legislative lawyer in D.C., bristled at Harman’s remakrs. "Our prognosticating track record in identifying programs ripe for abuse of privacy and civil liberties is pretty solid," Sparapani wrote in an e-mail that listed several other programs that the ACLU correctly raised warning flags on.
"That’s not luck," he wrote. "It’s a trend based on seeing the surveillance industrial complex being built bit-by-bit and terabyte by terabyte. As sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, if Fusion Centers aren’t built with rigid controls they will be privacy-invading monsters.
The ACLU points to Virginia, where legislators are moving to exempt their fusion center from government sunshine laws and give legal immunity to companies that report information — such as the name of a person accosted by a private security guard for taking pictures of a skyscraper.
On Wednesday, a trio of federal privacy and civil liberties officers, including the Department of Homeland Security’s chief privacy officer Hugo Teufel, promised they were working to make sure the centers respect citizens’ civil liberties and privacy.
David Gersten, the director of the civil rights and civil liberties programs at DHS, said he was working to expand their training course for Fusion Center employees to "include an examination of the history of privacy and civil liberties as they relate to intelligence and criminal investigations."
That history includes the famous 1976 Church Committee report on the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO spying program. The report warned in the introduction "Unless new and tighter controls are established by legislation, domestic intelligence activities threaten to undermine our democratic society and fundamentally alter its nature.
THREAT LEVEL asked conference attendees about the concerns over expanding the dissemination of intelligence given the continuing trouble innocent Americans have trying to get off the nation’s unified terrorist watch list.
Just this week, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a watch list audit (.pdf), finding that FBI agents were watch-listing people who they weren’t even investigating. Moreover, since those names were added through a back channel, there was no scheduled review or follow-up to take them off the watch list.
Leonard Boyle, who runs the Terrorist Screening Center that curates and runs the watch list, said those problems are being fixed.
"We have streamlined our processes so […] we avoid delays in amending nominations or removing people who ought to be removed because they are no longer suspected of having a nexus to terrorism," Boyle said.
Also present at the conference was Ambassador Thomas McNamara who now works at the Director of National Intelligence Office. McNamara’s group is working on custom-built XML schemes, such as a standard for Suspicious Activity Reports. The idea is have all fusion centers and intelligence agencies using the same data format, to more easily share, search, sort and store intelligence data.
Surprisingly, a total of only three reporters showed up over two days of the conference to hear from the officials. THREAT LEVEL was the only media outlet to show up both days.
Despite journalists taking up only two of the fifty or so chairs, officials stuck with the formality of a press conference. Each day six to eight officials stood in a semicircle flanking the lectern and took turns issuing short remarks. After each set of speeches, the director of the Iowa fusion center and designated emcee Russell Porter allowed for a handful of questions from the two-reporter audience.
And as for information sharing, the conference’s openness extended only so far, and the press was not allowed into sensitive sessions such as "How to Generate Suspicious Activity Reporting" and "Commanders and Analysts: Sharing Perspectives."
Government employees manning an informational booth for the Director of National Intelligence’s OpenSource.gov website refused to even describe the program, saying they would need to call in a press minder.
The website seems to indicate that the program is a way for the government to share intel reports composed by analysts who read international newspapers and watch TV stations from around the world.
THREAT LEVEL guessed we would not be able to sign up for the email blasts, due to our propensity to share information with the public. The taciturn DNI employees confirmed that fact, adding that they also couldn’t share the information from OpenSource.gov due to copyright issues.