Monday, March 30, 2009

Free Speech, Privacy And National Security With, Maybe, A Dash Of Cronyism

Have you ever heard of the Department of Homeland Security "all hazards fusion centers" that sprung up during the Bush Administration? We have one in Collin County called "The North Central Texas Fusion System" operated by the Collin County Department of Homeland Security in the county sheriff's office building. The Collin County Observer reports that James Johnson, son of U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson, and James Johnson's wife, Anita Miller, have received at least $1 million in no-bid contracts from Collin County since 2004 to design and run the "The North Central Texas Fusion System." Four other such fusion centers, designed to gather intelligence on Texans and share it with law-enforcement agencies, have been created in Texas since 2002.

The Collin County Observer has been posting about the "all hazards fusion center" in Collin County. A blogger colleague suggested we should post something to highlight this important reporting by our friend Bill Baumbach at the Observer blog.

The Collin County Observer has been reporting that a February 19. 2009 North Central Texas Fusion System "Prevention Awareness" bulletin distributed to law enforcement organizations warned that mainstream Muslim organizations were infiltrating American institutions, with the goal of gaining support for Islamic-based issues:
A bizarre, conspiracy-laden memo sent to almost 3,000 cops, fire marshals and public-health officials in North Texas links mainstream Muslim-rights organizations and anti-war groups to Middle Eastern terrorists, and calls on law enforcement to “report these types of activities.”

The leaked memo, dated Feb. 19 and labeled “For Official Use Only,” is one in a weekly series of “Prevention Awareness Bulletins” put out by the North Central Texas Fusion System, a regional intelligence-gathering center run by the Collin County Department of Homeland Security. Five such fusion centers, designed to consolidate and share intelligence with law-enforcement agencies, have been created in Texas since 9/11.

The bulletin has increased fears among civil libertarians and Metroplex Muslims that the North Central Texas Fusion System has edged into spying.

The author of the weekly Prevention Awareness Bulletin is James Johnson, son of U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson, a Republican who represents Collin County [in the 3rd Congressional District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. The 3rd Congressional District includes the southwestern portion of Collin County and the Northeastern corner of Dallas County.]
So, what is a Department of Homeland Security "all Hazards Fusion Center" and what does it do, you may be asking yourself. The Department of Homeland Security was authorized to fund local Homeland Security operations around the country as a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission Report. This far-reaching, yet little known or scrutinized, 9/11 Commission recommendation on "domestic" intelligence gathering breaks down the walls between local, state, and federal law enforcement and disaster response.

The thinking went that in terms of both prevention and response, effectively fighting terror would require a much higher level of centralized coordination among federal, state and local law enforcement and emergency services than had ever been previously contemplated. Though local fusion centers vary from state to state, most contain similar elements, including members of state and local law enforcement, public health, social services, public safety, and public works organizations. Increasingly, federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms are stationing their agents in the local fusion centers too.

(Department of Homeland Security also promotes and funds local "Urban Search and Rescue" (US&R) task forces to provide specialized assistance after disasters to stabilize damaged structures, locate and extricate victims, identify risks of additional collapses, and meet other needs at disaster sites. The US&R task forces are separate from "all hazards fusion centers," but the two efforts are related.)

Fusion centers are low-profile, highly secure sites where federal and state officials with top secret clearance meet in order to collect, analyze, and redistribute information on "all hazards and all threats." The Department of Homeland Security has paid out more than $327 million in funding to local authorities during fiscal years 2004 to 2008 to form 70 centers across the country. The federal government also provides start up personnel and technical support along with the funding.

The list of hazards and threats covered by these centers initially started with terrorism, but soon expanded to include local crime, gangs, "political activists" and weather-related natural disasters. (During the Bush administration Iraq anti-war protesters were identified as "political activists.") Fusion center databases are initialized with a broad spectrum of information, including the location and capabilities of area hospitals, available emergency response resources, and names from federal terrorism and law enforcement watch lists. Local, state and federal representatives now continually update fusion center databases with details of 911 emergency hot-line calls and other information gathered from law enforcement agencies, commercial sources, internet sources, blogs and websites, club and group memberships and, apparently, even religious affiliation.

Bush Administration Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, pressed fusion centers to "fuse" local firefighters with the "intelligence gathering" functions of local Fusion Centers. Chertoff reasoned that because firefighters, as emergency first responders, were in a position to report suspicious observations as they gain entrance to buildings in response to emergency calls.

The 70 local all hazards fusion centers around the U.S., including the one in Collin County, then, generally gather, compile, store, interpret and then distribute to other government agencies huge amounts of information on the "activities" of local citizens.

This data pool is intended to help local, state and federal law enforcement form a clearer picture of threats facing each state. In addition, it helps inform law enforcement investigations, contingency planning, and emergency response. This is what The North Central Texas Fusion System (NCTFS) does - it gathers and interprets information on the "activities" of Collin County residents and sends "reports" to local, state and national law enforcement organizations on what local groups or individual persons might pose a threat.

While Fusion Centers sprang to life and grew to 70 centers under the Bush Administration they seem to have continuing strong support from the Obama administration. "At the Department of Homeland Security, information and intelligence sharing is a top priority and fusion centers play an important role in helping to make that happen... In the world we live in today, it’s critical for federal, state, local and tribal entities to know what the others are doing so each can operate effectively and efficiently," said Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano at the the third annual National Fusion Center Conference in Kansas City on March 11 this year.

"Protecting our country requires a partnership of federal, state and local resources that are fully integrated to not only gather and analyze information, but then to swiftly share that information with appropriate agencies...Fusion centers represent the honing of these protective efforts, while strongly protecting individual rights and civil liberties. They are a vital part of keeping our nation strong, safe and free," Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said in remarks at the same conference.

The National Fusion Center Coordination Group (NFCCG), the 2009 National Fusion Center conference organizer, promoted a conference agenda focused on strengthening the integrated national network of state and major urban area fusion centers that share information and intelligence with the federal government and each other. Close to 1,000 state, local, tribal, territorial and federal partners involved in the 70+ fusion centers across the country attended the March 2009 conference.

Some worry that the information gathered by Fusion Centers might be used to violate civil liberties. This seems to be the implication of the February 19, 2009 North Central Texas Fusion System "Prevention Awareness" bulletin warning about the political activities of Americans who attend Mosque rather than Church.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says pooling information on U.S. citizens who aren't suspected of a crime runs afoul of the Federal Privacy Act of 1974. Some states have even applied for exemptions from constraints on the kind of information they can collect, which Rotenberg calls “a purposeful attempt to suspend federal privacy laws.”

In December of 2008, the DHS issued a "Privacy Impact Statement" giving "civil liberties" oversight guidance to fusion center directors and personnel. The DHS Statement called for the establishment of community oversight committees and the prominent public disclosure of privacy policies, information collected and how the information will be used. The North Central Texas Fusion System in Collin County has not subscribed to nor adhered to these DHS "privacy and civil liberties"guidelines.

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