In the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, American leaders from across the political spectrum vowed to do everything in their power to prevent another attack. Over the past decade, the government has developed dozens of new programs and spent trillions of dollars in the name of combating terrorism. One initiative finally receiving the attention it deserves, in light of its enormous cost and potential for abuse, is the creation of information hubs or so-called “fusion centers,” across the United States.
Unfortunately, these centers have not served as effective counter-terrorism tools, and in fact, have violated Americans’ rights in the process. This was made clear by a comprehensive investigation by the Senate Homeland Security Investigations Subcommittee.
Fusion centers are state and regionally based information-sharing hubs designed to pool the knowledge and expertise of state, local, and federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies, military officials, and private sector entities. Though they are not federal entities and have no federal legal status, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has said, “Fusion Centers will be the centerpiece of state, local [and] federal intelligence-sharing for the future.” Already, there are 77 fusion centers across the US, and the federal government alone has invested vast sums – the Senate subcommittee estimated as much as $1.4 billion between 2003 and 2010 – in their operation.
Are fusion centers being run properly? As the recent Senate investigation report corroborates, the evidence demonstrates the very real risks fusion centers pose to civil liberties – and the need for safeguards to lessen those risks.
For example, a report prepared for The Constitution Project found that several centers have issued bulletins that characterize a wide variety of religious and political groups as “threats” to national security, including Muslim hip-hop bands and supporters of former presidential candidate Ron Paul. Since fusion centers routinely share “suspicious activity reports” with other centers and the FBI, innocent Americans exercising constitutionally protected rights can end up in centralized counter-terrorism databases.
One of the dangers of the national fusion center network is that misinformation developed in one jurisdiction can rapidly spread to other law enforcement agencies all across the country.
National security and anti-terrorism concerns require confidentiality in some matters, these concerns do not justify the paucity of publicly available information about the actual practices and activities of individual fusion centers.