Time to shut fusion centers once and for all?

Do we need so-called intelligence fusion centers? A senate subcommittee for investigations report published in 2012 pointed out that the centers are extremely costly, duplicative of other federal-local intelligence and terrorism efforts, and have been shown to infringe on civil liberties. 

Our recent history with fusion centers here in Boston backs up all of those findings.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, the press was quick to ask: where were the fusion centers? We have two in Massachusetts; there is one state-run center, the Commonwealth Fusion Center (CFC), and one run by the Boston Police, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC).

The FBI’s response to the question “Where were the fusion centers?” is extremely illuminating:

A spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department said the Boston Regional Intelligence Center [] was never notified about the FBI investigation.

In response, FBI supervisory Agent Jason Pack e-mailed a statement suggesting that state and local officials had ample access to information about the Tsarnaev investigation in 2011, through their participation in an FBI unit in Boston, the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

“Many state and local departments directly involved and affected by the Boston Marathon investigation have representatives who are full-time members of the JTTF and who have the same unrestricted access to information and government databases as their FBI colleagues,’’ Pack said. “State and local JTTF representatives were assigned to the squad that conducted the 2011 assessment.’’

That’s right: the FBI had shared information about Tsarnaev with its state and local partners, through the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The fusion center wasn’t notified, and the FBI doesn’t apologize for this. That leads me to believe that the FBI doesn’t think that leaving the fusion centers out of the loop on terrorism investigations is a problem that requires fixing.

If the FBI’s investigatory work with state and locals on terrorism is situated at the JTTFs, as it appears to be, what useful purpose do fusion centers serve with respect to terrorism? The jury is out on that question. But we know a bit about some non-terrorism related activities at the BRIC.

A public records lawsuit in 2011 showed that the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, like other fusion centers nationwide, devoted resources and time to spying on perfectly peaceful dissenters like Veterans for Peace and Code Pink.

In light of bad press resulting from the senate subcommittee report, and declining federal funds, some fusion centers are waking up to the realization that they may have to rely on state and local funding to continue operations. 

In Wisconsin, federal funding for fusion centers has decreased 88% since 2005. Governor Scott Walker is pledging to fill in the gap with state funding, at a time when public services are being cut statewide

But it’s not at all clear that fusion centers are worth the money, and they may in fact be harmful to our society. Instead of continuing to fund them, we should pause and reflect on whether the institutions are worth the cost to our liberty and our pocketbooks. The evidence here in Boston suggests it may be time to stop throwing money at them once and for all.

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