Friday, March 13, 2009

Fusion Centers: Just Part of the Problem

Props go to The Muckracker, a blog of the Center for Investigative Reporting for drawing attention to Obama's $260 million budget request for fusion centers.  Its critique of the reality show "Homeland Security USA" is also prescient, well-deserved, and spot on.

At Political Research Associates, we particularly appreciate the Muckracker's shoutout to Frank Donner, author of the Age of Surveillance and Protectors of Privilege:  Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America.  Donner's work is important because it reminds us that civil liberties abuses by the FBI are not anomalies.  Intelligence agencies have played a critical role in America's system of government by channeling and coercing movements for fundamental change.

Massive federal funding for state fusion center analysts is problematic, but it is not directly comparable to the FBI's COINTELPRO operations.  Fusion centers represent an unprecedented expansion of government's capacity to collect, analyze, and disseminate data about all Americans.  Russell Porter, head of Iowa's fusion center, said they may be "the most significant change in the structural landscape of criminal intelligence in the past twenty-five years."  
High levels of secrecy, lack of oversight, and non-binding, ambiguous privacy policies make fusion centers a serious threat to privacy and freedom of speech.  The mere knowledge that the government is "keeping lists" hampers freedom of thought and action -- let alone what the government might do with our personal information.

But intelligence analysts are just one facet of the problem.  Their job is to "connect the dots" and "fuse" the data about crime, "suspicious activities," and other personal characteristics fed into the system.  The aggressive and disruptive actions that are more closely associated with Cointelpro operations are being done by the FBI, Joint Terrorism Task Forces, Homeland Security agents, and state and local police intelligence units (not the fusion centers).  Structurally, these agencies interact with fusion centers, but operate independently as an investigative arm of this enormous security apparatus. 

 "Well, the oppressors are tryin' to keep me down
  Tryin to drive me underground
  And they think that they have got the battle won
  I say forgive them Lord, they know not what they've done

  'Cause as sure as the sun will shine
  I'm gonna get my share now, what's mine
  And then the harder they come, the harder they'll fall, one and all
  Ooh, the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all"

  - Jimmy Cliff, "The Harder They Come"