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.