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Last week, a sub-committee of the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee held a public hearing titled, "The Future of Fusion Centers: Potential Promise and Dangers”.
The dominant topics of the hearing were Collin County's own North Central Texas Fusion System (NCTFS), and an op-ed written by libertarian Bruce Fein and published in the Washington Times.
Mr. Fein, who at one time worked for Former VP Dick Cheney, raised the hackles of the committee members with his assertions that Fusion Centers were a threat to American citizens' individual liberties. His Times article titled, "Surveilling for clues of evil intent: An American Stasi operating in 'fusion centers'?", began with the provocative statement that:
"The Soviet Union had its KGB, East Germany had its Stasi, and the United States should profit by those examples. It should abandon fusion centers that engage 800,000 state and local law enforcement officers in the business of gathering and sharing purported domestic or international terrorism intelligence. The vast majority conceive this task as synonymous with monitoring and scorning political dissent and association protected by the First Amendment."
Mr Fein's article uses the NCTFS as an illustration of the dangers inherent in fusion centers:
"On Feb. 19, the North Central Texas Fusion System issued a routine Prevention Awareness Bulletin that easily might have been penned by recruits from East Germany's Stasi. In bold letters, the bulletin worries that freedom of speech, the freedom to petition government for redress of grievances, and freedom of association are being exploited by Islamic groups to advance their Islamic-based goals by peaceful and lawful means. In other words, democracy is the enemy."
"To a hammer everything looks like a nail. To an intelligence agent, informant or law enforcement officer, everything unconventional or unorthodox looks like at least a pre-embryonic terrorist danger."
Fein ends his op-ed by noting that:
"Timothy McVeigh was not a prime suspect in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Arab Muslims were. Because anything might be a clue as to a possible psychological inclination to commit terrorism, everything is fair game for intelligence collection. But when everything is relevant, nothing is relevant. That may explain why there is no credible evidence that fusion centers have frustrated a single terrorist plot - their primary raison d'etre."
"They are no more American than was the House Un-American Activities Committee, and they deserve the same fate."
While committee members (and this writer) disagree with Fein's inflammatory assessment, his article does illustrate the national debate touched off by the release of the NCTFS's bulletin.
The NCTFS gained this national notoriety after the Collin County Observer released a "Public Awareness Bulletin" (PAB) written by the NCTFS and sent to several hundred law enforcement agencies and first responders. Within hours after we released the PAB, the national ACLU issued a press release warning of the dangers of inciting anti-Muslim prejudice.
Ms. Caroline Fredrickson, the Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified at a March 18, 2009 public hearing held by the US House Committee on Homeland Security on the NCTFS's bulletin:
"Last month a Texas fusion center supported by DHS released an intelligence bulletin that described a purported conspiracy between Muslim civil rights organizations, lobbying groups, the anti-war movement, a former U.S. Congresswoman, the U.S. Treasury Department and hip hop bands to spread Sharia law in the U.S.30 The bulletin, which reportedly is sent to over 100 different agencies, would be laughable except that it comes with the imprimatur of a federally backed intelligence operation, and it directs law enforcement officers to monitor the activities of these groups in their areas. The ACLU has long warned that these state, local and regional intelligence fusion centers lacked proper oversight and accountability and we hope the discovery of this shockingly inappropriate report leads to much needed examination and reform."
Among those testifying at the April 1st Congressional hearing were John Bateman of the Texas Department of Public Safety and Robert Riegle from the US Department of Homeland Security.
David Gersten, US DHS on the NCTFS's February Public Awareness Bulletin
Both decried the NCTFS's bulletin, which was written by Dr. Bob Johnson, the son of US Congressman Sam Johnson of Plano. The Texas Observer notes that Mr. Riegle testified:
"We took immediate and aggressive response to the bulletin... we immediately sent a team of civil liberties and civil rights experts down to the state of Texas to work directly with the center."
"This included advocates from the Muslim-American community in the United States of America. We also then immediately altered the directors’ meeting at the national conference to emphasize the importance of this and went over this particular oversight error as aggressively as we possibly could."
John Bateman told the committee that, "Chief Kelley Stone of the North Central Texas Fusion System took responsibility for this. [ed. note - even though the PAB was written by Dr. Johnson] He met with Rob Riegle and their staff. They’re implemented new review and editing policies, and they’ve met with people and are retraining everyone in the area of privacy and civil liberties."
And David Gersten the Acting Deputy Officer for Programs and Compliance
Department of Homeland Security added, “We brought the subject up at the National Fusion Center Conference and trained [DHS analysts] using that product as a demonstration of what not to do.”
Gersten also told the committee that DHS would be detaching an intelligence analyst to the NCTFS and that person would also receive additional privacy and civil liberties training.
Was the now infamous Public Awareness Bulletin simply the result of poor judgment or is it indicative of more systemic problems in the county's NCTFS?
My research into the NCTFS is yielding troubling indications that this county's fusion center may be operating in a manner that shows the issuance of the PAB symptomatic of deep seated problems.
For example, Texas has a State Fusion Center that reports to the DPS and the North Texas Region has a law enforcement operation similar to a fusion center.
The North Texas operation is called the Law Enforcement Analysis Portal or LEAP. LEAP uses data from many police and sheriff's departments in the region to create a database that allows participating agencies to access data from all jurisdictions and to use a highly sophisticated interface to ask questions that highlight similarities between offenses and possible suspects.
I spoke to an official close to LEAP and he described a system of written agreements between agencies that insured that sensitive data remained the property of the originating agency and that privacy concerns were addressed. Federal standards for Fusion Centers recommend similar agreements or MOUs (Memoranda of Understanding) be signed by all Fusion Centers and the agencies supplying databases to the centers.
Yet, when I submitted an Open Records Request to the NCTFS, all I received were agreements with local police departments. Even though its own literature boasts of regional, state and national security data being used by the Fusion Center, I was told that there were "no written agreements with any state of federal agency". That admission would indicate that there are also no formal standards of ownership, security or privacy safeguards.
LEAP uses software and database technologies that are commercially supported and have been in use by several organizations for years. In contrast, the NCTFS relies to a large extent on custom written programs and systems developed for it by Dr. Johnson.
Another concern is with the management of the NCTFS. Until last week, the NCTFS directed technical questions to the primary architect and technical person at the fusion center. That person is Dr. Bob Johnson, who lives not in Texas, but in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The manager of the center was listed as Anita Miller. Ms. Miller is the wife of Dr. Johnson. Together, Miller and Johnson are ADB, a two person company that has been paid over one million dollars to build and operate the NCTFS. After the firestorm over the PAB, Dr. Bob and Anita Miller's names were removed from the NCTFS website and replaced with generic "firstname.lastname@example.org".
Entrusting the management of this critical multi-million dollar operation to a husband and wife team who live 600 miles away should raise questions about managerial probity at NCTFS.
Last year, DHS issued a report titled, "Privacy Impact Assessment for the Department of Homeland Security State, Local, and Regional Fusion Center Initiative". This report called for several safeguards against fusion center intrusion into the privacy of American Citizens.
Among the guidelines listed in the Privacy Impact Assessment and in the DHS Manual on Fusion Center Guidelines are:
The establishment of a broad-based community "Privacy Committee" with members drawn from diverse local groups. [I find no such Privacy Committee that advises the NCTFS.]
In their testimony before the House Committee, both DHS officials stressed that they and the fusion centers should welcome public requests for information, should strive for transparency. This writer would love to test that policy, but repeated inquiries to Kelley Stone (the Director of the Collin County Homeland Security Department and the chief official at the fusion center) go unanswered.
I do believe there is a role for fusion centers. While there are real privacy and civil liberties concerns with these large intelligence operations, these have begun to be addressed by other fusion systems and by Congress. However, the huge data silos on citizens maintained by these fusion centers must be carefully monitored and regulated to insure that our liberties remain inviolate.
Local fusion centers, such as the NCTFS operate with very little professional oversight. The NCTFS is primarily responsible to the County Commissioners Court, and I don't believe the commissioners are qualified nor inclined to adequately supervise a police and intelligence operation. To prevent excess zeal and to insure that effective policies are enforced, direct supervision of the local fusion centers by the Texas DPS or US DHS would seem to be only prudent.
As the issuance of the February PAB loudly demonstrated, the NCTFS is in need of oversight and training. Relying on a two person, out-of-state, politically connected contractor and a political commissioners court is a recipe for disaster.
The Prevention Awareness Bulletin, NCTFS Feb. 19, 2009
Surveilling for clues of evil intent, Bruce Fein, The Washington Times, April 1, 2009
“The Future of Fusion Centers: Potential Promise and Dangers”, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, April 01, 2009
“Homeland Security Intelligence: Its Relevance and Limitations”, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment, March 18, 2009
Fusion Center Guidelines, US Dept. of Justice and US Dept. of Homeland Security, 2008
Privacy Impact Assessment for the Department of Homeland Security State, Local, and Regional Fusion Center Initiative, US Dept. of Homeland Security, 2008
28 CFR Part 23 Guideline: CRIMINAL INTELLIGENCE SYSTEMS OPERATING POLICIES, Code of Federal Regulations
North Central Texas Fusion System home page
No More Lobbyist-Terrorists?, The Texas Observer, April 7, 2009
Dr. Bob's Terror Shop, The Texas Observer, April 2, 2009
Keystone Kounter-Terrorism, The Texas Observer, March 20, 2009
Fusion Center kills controversial newsletter, CCO April 6, 2009
Commissioners refuse Fusion Center grant that would benefit ADB, CCO March 13, 2009
Fusion Center vendor accused of nepotism and unfair competition, CCO March 8, 2009
Fusion: Fear, Fiction, Fact and Freedom, CCO, Feb. 2009
Commissioners to consider "no bid" contract for Fusion Center, CCO, Dec. 2008
The administration and the congressional Committee are committed to the concept of Fusion Centers.
They see these centers as a critical part of a nation security posture, but while they do acknowledge the dangers to civil liberties, they believe that such dangers can be minimized and controlled.
The NCTFS's bulletin was used as an example of how not to communicate.
The author of the Times op-ed was the sole critic of the concept of fusion centers, but even he was finally maneuvered into agreeing that they could serve an important function if safeguards were in place.
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