What's the Matter with Fusion Centers?

The hubs of the post 9/11 domestic intelligence system are the nation’s 72 “fusion centers.”  

Since 2003, with the assistance of Department of Homeland Security funding, these new data collection centers have been developed for the express purpose of “fusing” and analyzing information and surveillance from law enforcement, government entities, and private organizations. The 50 state-based and 22 urban fusion centers have been designated as the primary entities for analyzing Suspicious Activities Reports and sharing state and local terrorism-related information across the country and with federal agencies through the DHS’ Information Sharing Environment.  

Originally intended as terrorism-fighting tools, fusion centers soon adopted an “all crimes” and “all hazards” mission, and have become repositories of traditional criminal information. The Congressional Research Service reported in 2007 that this was necessary because local law enforcement agencies “often didn’t feel threatened by terrorism, nor did they think that their community would produce would-be terrorists.” Spurred by the availability of federal grants, a concept of policing (“predictive policing”) has emerged that is no longer primarily reactive and focused on solving crimes but on collecting evidence of crimes that may be about to be committed.

Above: a screenshot from the Illinois Homeland Security Information Network, listing at the bottom a "World Can't Wait" protest alongside terror threats (click to englarge)

A 2008 DHS Privacy Office review of fusion centers concluded that they presented risks to privacy because of ambiguous lines of authority, rules and oversight; the participation of the military and private sector; data mining; excessive secrecy; inaccurate or incomplete information; the dangers of mission creep.

The following year, Bruce Fein, a conservative constitutional lawyer and former Associate Deputy Attorney General in the Reagan administration, told Congress that fusion centers and Suspicious Activity Reports were worthy of the Soviet Union’s KGB and East Germany’s Stasi, and should be abandoned:

To an intelligence agent, informant, or law enforcement officer, everything unconventional or unorthodox looks like at least a pre-embryonic terrorist danger.

Examples now abound of legitimate First Amendment activity being regarded by fusion centers as potential “terrorist danger.” For example, late in 2010, the Tennessee Fusion Center included on an Internet map detailing “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” the fact that the ACLU of Tennessee wrote a letter to school superintendents asking them to encourage schools to be supportive of all religious beliefs during the holiday season. A few months later, this Tennessee fusion center received the "Fusion Center of the Year" award from Janet Napolitano, head of DHS.

Early in 2011, plans for a Virginia-based mega fusion center run by the US Joint Special Operations Command came to light. This military targeting center would further blur lines of authority and merge data from the wide reaches of the “global war on terror” in a domestic-foreign cloud-computing network tied into “all elements of U.S. national security from the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency to Homeland Security’s border-monitoring databases. The computer is designed to sift through masses of information to track militant suspects across the globe” (Associated Press, January 9, 2011). The data would help the military target missile strikes and commando raids oversees, and would also “be used at times to advise domestic law enforcement in dealing with suspected terrorists inside the U.S.”

Check out our Resources page for more on fusion centers, including a detailed white paper and report. 

Mass Focus: Fusion Centers

Massachusetts has two fusion centers: the Commonwealth Fusion Center (CFC) in Maynard and the Boston Police Department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). 

The CFC was first mentioned in the State Homeland Security Strategy issued by the Executive Office of Public Safety in February 2004, which reported that the “operational and organizational ‘hub’ of the commonwealth’s homeland security efforts will be a 24/7 information fusion center maintained by the Massachusetts State Police Criminal Intelligence Section.”  It would work closely with the new Joint Terrorism Task Force, the US Attorney’s Office, and other key state, regional and local entities to collect and share intelligence. 

The CFC was set up by Governor Mitt Romney without any public debate as a multi agency data collection center under the supervision of the State Police.  Federal, state, local and private officials of various agencies and companies were soon embedded within it, providing CFC with access to their databases and having access to the information stored and analyzed in the CFC hub. 

Participating agencies included the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Massachusetts National Guard, the Department of Correction, the Department of Homeland Security office of Intelligence Analysis, the Geographic Information Systems and the US Army Civil Support Team.  In addition, a police officer from CSX Railroad, a private entity, was embedded in the CFC, which has entered into data-sharing agreements with local police departments in Massachusetts, state police in other states, and a number of state agencies.  Through the Information Sharing Environment, the CFC is linked to other federal and state agencies, and the data it collects can easily be shared.  In addition to federal agents having access to local information, local personnel have been granted clearance by the DHS and FBI to access classified information. 

Among the documents the Commonwealth Fusion Center has produced is an information bulletin urging “Lodging Awareness.” It calls on hotel staff to look out for and report “suspicious behavior.” This could include: a “nervous or evasive guest…overly concerned with privacy,” the “denial of access to room or refusal of room cleaning for extended stay,” payment in cash, taking notes or pictures or videos of the hotel. Created as a terrorism-fighting tool, the CFC soon began to employ an “all hazards,” “all threats,” and “all crimes” approach to homeland security and to collect information that was unrelated to terrorism.  This broader approach has enabled it to apply for a wider range of grants, as it collects information that goes well beyond criminal intelligence.

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) was created in 2005 to integrate the intelligence work of Boston police with local, state and federal law enforcement partners.  It has embedded in it representatives from a wide range of agencies including the state police, MBTA transit police, Department of Correction, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, the Brookline and Cambridge police departments and a representative of the business community.  It shares information with the CFC and Joint Terrorism Task Force.  Boston has piloted new approaches to “homeland security,” including the Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative  and Predictive Policing. 

In October 2012, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the National Lawyers Guild Massachusetts chapter published a report entitled "Policing Dissent," revealing that the BPD had been spying on First Amendment protected speech and creating 'intelligence reports' listing peaceful groups as domestic terrorist threats. The Boston Regional Intelligence Center maintained these reports in violation of its own guidelines and federal law. Read the report here, and read more about the BPD spying here.

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