Monday, May 3, 2010

Suspicious Activity Reporting To Be Linked Nationwide

Warning flags abound in recent report on pilot program

PRA says nationwide deployment is premature and invites civil liberties violations

The Department of Justice has quietly released the final report on a two-year pilot program on “Suspicious Activity Reporting.”

This program, the latest product of the domestic security overhaul following September 11, 2001 is cause for alarm, according to a recently published study Platform for Prejudice, by Political Research Associates (PRA). The study details how the Suspicious Activity Program involves enlisting law enforcement as intelligence officers by training police to report 1st Amendment protected activities like photography, taking notes, making diagrams, and “espousing extremist views.”

The SAR initiative is set to be operational nationwide in all 72 Fusion Center sites by September 2012. It will soon expand to 10 new sites in Alabama, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, along with Dallas, Kansas City, and Savannah, announced program director Tom O’Reilly at a February 2010 conference.

The government’s official evaluation of the pilot program echoes the unease about effectiveness and legality raised in PRA’s Platform for Prejudice. According to the government’s report on the project, both quantitative and qualitative performance metrics for Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) data are lacking. According to the government report, “the majority of sites were unable to calculate the number of arrests and investigations resulting from SAR data.”

Only two sites out of the twelve reported the number of investigations that led to arrests or convictions in cases involving SAR reports with a supposed nexus to terrorism or other criminal activity. Plus, the legality of the program is difficult to ascertain where only four sites “completed the activities necessary to share SAR data with other sites and had their analysts regularly perform searches.” Other troubling observations from the report include:

  • “Few sites were able to fully implement the SAR process and share data.” (p. 30)
  • Only 4 sites out of 12 “completed the activities necessary to share SAR data with other sites and [had] their analysis regularly perform searches of ISE-SAR Shared Spaces” (p. 30).
  • “Several sites had difficulty providing statistics on the total number of SARs received prior to being assessed as ISE-SARs.” (p. 30).
  • “At the beginning of the [evaluation environment], there was not a clear agreement on what constituted a terrorism-related suspicious activity.” (p. 41)
  • “The level of suspicion needed to classify terrorism-related information as an ISE-SAR (a report that gets shared nationwide) that would be shared with other law enforcement agencies was not clearly defined.” (p.42)
  • The DOJ’s report recommends “A review concerning the SARs entered during the evaluation period to determine the consistence of determining the level of suspicion. (p.42)

Based on the sparse information and the confusion surrounding the level of suspicion, how could the federal government possibly conclude that this program is ready to go nationwide? What good is an “Evaluation Environment” that doesn’t evaluate? It’s time for Congress to exercise its oversight function to protect civil liberties and ensure that resources and tax dollars are not being wasted.

The police department of one of the twelve original program sites, made its apprehension clear. In assessing the SAR pilot program, the Boston Police Department suggests PRA’s concerns are warranted: “there seemed to be a disparate amount of SARs being entered between the agencies. B[oston] P[olice] D[epartment] wants to avoid the entry of information into the [information sharing environment] Shared Spaces that is not of value and prevent large volumes of information being ‘dumped’ into the system.” This could be the case in Florida, where the state fusion center reported collecting more than 5,700 suspicious activity reports from local police agencies, but only 12 were found to have a “potential nexus to terrorism.” (p .32).

Questions still linger regarding the lawfulness of the program. In Platform for Prejudice, PRA challenges the legality of this new information-sharing program because it lowers the threshold for domestic intelligence collection. Federal guidelines that were enacted after the COINTELPRO abuses of the 1960s and 1970s prohibit the collection and storing of intelligence if police do not reasonably suspect a crime is about to be committed. In direct contradiction to that law, Suspicious Activity Reporting programs call citizens to file reports on legal behaviors that “do not seem right.” The Final Report on the SAR Evaluation Environment candidly admits that domestic intelligence gathering may concern innocent persons:

The term “Involved Party (IP)” did not exist on the previous Investigative Report. It was added with the idea that when the SAR box is checked, the officer will write the report using the term “IP” instead of “suspect.” LAPD does not consider someone engaging in suspicious activity as a suspect but an IP, because, in reality, the suspicious activity may not be a crime; therefore, there would be no suspect.” (p. 19, fn. 17)

Platform for Prejudice documents numerous incidents where law-abiding people of “Middle Eastern appearance” received intimidating visits from cops or FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agents simply because they videotaped a tourist attraction, rented a boat without fishing gear, engaged in religious practice, or took a picture with a friend at an airport. In one instance, Duane Kerzic was detained because he took pictures of trains at New York's Penn Station. It turns out he was participating in Amtrak's annual photography contest. The SAR Initiative threatens to clog intelligence pipelines with junk data derived from racial, ethnic, religious, and ideological bias.

“When taking photographs of landmark structures is defined as suspicious activity, police must decide whom to report among the thousands of people snapping pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge. Unsurprisingly, evidence indicates they are relying on the dominant racial and ethnic stereotypes about who might be a terrorist. This not only violates Constitutional protections, but erodes mutual trust and makes communities less safe,” said PRA Executive Director Tarso Luís Ramos.

Platform for Prejudice makes eleven recommendations to policy makers and social justice activists, including that Congress should hold hearings to evaluate the lawfulness and effectiveness of Suspicious Activity Reporting and order reforms prior to nationwide implementation. PRA’s study examines how Suspicious Activity Reporting programs and the Fusion Centers they operate from operate largely without public oversight and accountability.

Now is the time for an independent review, before the program is institutionalized at more and more Fusion Centers. There has been too much talk of transparency, and not enough sunlight and public accountability.


The Final Report issued by the Bureau of Justice Assistance can now be found at the NSI Program Management Office website,

News about the nationwide implementation of the SAR program can be found at:

· U.S. to Offer Suspicious Activity Report Training Nationwide” (March 3, 2010)

· “The Rights Hands” (Feb. 24, 2010)

· Corey McKenna, “Program Strengthens Suspicious Activity Reporting to Combat Terrorism,” Emergency Management (April 5, 2010)