New "Fusion Centers" Must Be Open, Carefully Monitored and Subject to Restraints, ACLU Says In New Report

December 12, 2007 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – New institutions now emerging in American life – “fusion centers” – are raising many questions about privacy and government openness and must be carefully bounded and monitored to ensure that they remain a legitimate and effective law enforcement tool, according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Fusion centers are springing up all over the country, but without oversight, boundary-setting, and checks and balances – which are crucial,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “In a democracy, any collection and sharing of intelligence information about citizens by their government needs to be carried out with the utmost care.”

Fusion centers vary widely, but generally are centers intended to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among state, local and federal government agencies and the private sector. To date, over 40 of these centers have been established around the nation.

“We all want our government agencies to talk to each other and share appropriate law enforcement information,” said Mike German, ACLU Policy Counsel. “What we don’t want to see is the emergence of secretive, out-of-control units that collect and sift through masses of personal information on innocent people.”

The ACLU’s report, entitled “What’s Wrong With Fusion Centers?” was written by the ACLU’s Mike German and Jay Stanley. It identifies five specific problems with fusion centers as they are shaping up:

  • Ambiguous Lines of Authority. Overlapping jurisdictions create the potential for manipulation of differing laws to evade accountability.

  • Private Sector Participation. Fusion centers are incorporating private corporations into the intelligence process, further threatening privacy.

  • Military Participation. Fusion centers are involving military personnel in law enforcement activities in troubling ways.

  • Data Mining. Federal fusion center guidelines encourage wholesale data collection and manipulation processes that threaten privacy.

  • Excessive Secrecy. Public oversight, individual redress and the very effectiveness of fusion centers are threatened by excessive secrecy.

“Some fusion center activities do not to raise any significant concerns,” said German. “But these are brand-new institutions that are still rapidly evolving, and the federal government is pushing for fusion centers to expand their efforts to collect personal information from a multitude of non-law enforcement sources – including private-sector databases.”

German also cited the recent controversy over a Department of Homeland Security program of recruiting firefighters to serve as the eyes and ears of security officials when they enter private homes, which he said was an example of the dangers of extending police intelligence collection into everyday life.

The ACLU concludes its report with recommendations that Congress and state legislatures lift the cloak of secrecy that threatens to envelop fusion centers; impose checks and balances on them; define their mission, concentrating them on focused, effective law enforcement techniques rather than dragnets; and evaluate the ultimate effectiveness of these institutions.

“Our nation has done fine without fusion centers for over 200 years,” said German. “We need to take a close look at whether the benefits of these centers will really justify their costs and the risks they impose to our civil liberties.”

For more information and to read the ACLU’s report, go to:

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