Now let’s talk about something that has concerned people about domestic intelligence generally and fusion centers specifically for a long time now.
Violations of civil liberties.
I’ve said before (and I maintain today) that a) I do believe there are violations of civil liberties and civil rights going on all the time in criminal and homeland security shops around the country and b) this is mostly do to incompetence rather than any real plan to deprive people of their rights.
And here’s where you can look at things as half full or half empty. While the committee’s report identified numerous reports that was inappropriate it did note that ‘[t]o the credit of officials participating in the review process, these reports were for the most part cancelled before publication.’
That’s good but fusion centers produce a whole host of information which doesn’t go through the DHS vetting process. While, theoretically, every center is supposed to have a privacy officer and all products are supposed to be vetted for privacy/civil liberties/civil rights issues, unlike at DHS that position need not necessarily (or even usually) be a position devoted to those issues. It can be an ‘extra duty’. And when something is piled on as such, we all now how much attention and effort usually follows.
Beyond that, remember that there are pressures to produce numbers at these centers. Quantity of reports = productivity = effectiveness = justifications for promotions and resources.
So, what to do if you don’t have much actual intelligence to report on but you have a lot of constitutionally protected activities going on (ideally conducted by people whose ideological orientation or socio-economic-racial background kinda makes you feel icky?
Well, you could always put out ‘officer safety’ bulletins or ‘situational awareness’ reports. The reasoning can be ‘Oh, we’re not reporting on the protest or specific event, but there may be ‘public safety’ concerns…traffic might get snarled…people might pass out from heat exhaustion…you know.’
And here’s where you can see the jack-booted thugs behind the curtain or not.
You could say that these sorts of things are a ‘wink and nod’ way to pass along intelligence on constitutionally protected activity. After all, a ‘situational awareness’ product coming from a ‘crime center’ or a ‘counter-terrorism’ shop will probably mean something different than if the very same product came from the traffic enforcement division, for example. I’m not sure I’ve seen any evidence of the level of self-awareness required to understand the concept of contextual information but it is there in any case.
And the ‘public safety’ argument only really holds water if there’s some evidence that such bulletins go out for similar, non-controversial, events. Worried about traffic snarls? Why aren’t you putting out a product when the American Legion holds fund raiser and parade? Oh, that’s right…your dad was in the Legion. ‘Nuff said.
In those, you can make the most outrageous claims and just tack on a statement at the end that says ‘We recognize the rights of people to conduct first amendment activity and provide this for information only.’
So, what drives this sort of thing? You can think it’s a grand conspiracy theory but I honestly believe it’s the result of people in over their heads making decisions on issues they aren’t qualified to make. In the interest of careerism and institutional goals, they wing it, don’t think too much about the consequences and hope if the proverbial shit hits the fan it’ll be after they’ve been promoted out of there (or, retired and picked up a cushy security job with some corporation).
And that is what should drive you nuts. The flaws identified by the Senate are the results of countless decisions made to let unqualified people feel like they are part of the big game. As Tom Ridge (the genius who brought us color coded terrorism threats) said:
“We thought if we just threw the name out there, built a bunch of them, we’d feel a lot better.”
Yep…a sound basis for establishing a domestic intelligence program.