Over-Zealous Intelligence Gathering Warrants Strict Congressional Oversight, ACLU Testifies

March 18, 2009 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union testified today before a House subcommittee about the strong need for oversight in intelligence gathering and dissemination at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment hearing examined the definition of “homeland security intelligence;” the Department’s role in developing it as a new intelligence discipline; and how the Department and others can provide state, local and tribal authorities with national threat awareness while building privacy and civil liberties protections into the process.

“It is patently false that the more information we have, the more secure we are,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Unfortunately, DHS has been over-zealous in its information gathering and innocent Americans have been caught in the web of suspicion. From its involvement in the surveillance of Maryland peace groups to intrusive laptop searches at the border, DHS seems to see every American as a potential criminal. DHS cannot continue to vacuum up benign intelligence.”

The ACLU noted in its testimony that “homeland security” is a relatively new and exceptionally broad concept that combines protecting against traditional threats from hostile nations, terrorists and other criminal groups with responding to outbreaks of infectious disease, natural disasters and industrial accidents. While these are all important missions, taking such an unfocused “all crimes, all hazards” approach to intelligence collection poses significant risks to our individual liberties, our democratic principles and, ironically, even our security. Problems inherent in the way the intelligence community produces “intelligence” limit its reliability, rendering suspect its value in improving security. The ACLU testified alongside other privacy advocates as well as law enforcement professionals.

The ACLU has long been concerned with what it perceives to be a steady infringement on Americans’ privacy under DHS policies including the department’s implementation of warrantless laptop and electronic device searches at America’s borders and the department’s involvement in fusion centers. Fusion centers were created in the wake of 9/11 to expand information collection and sharing practices among law enforcement agencies, the private sector and the intelligence community. The ACLU has been a harsh critic of the centers, releasing a report calling for comprehensive and stringent privacy guidelines among other recommendations.

“It’s up to Congress to conduct regular and vigorous oversight of DHS and to cut off funds if its programs are unnecessary, ineffective or prone to abuse,” added Fredrickson. “The bottom line is that DHS intelligence programs should not compete with other federal programs. DHS must assess what state, local and other federal agencies need from DHS intelligence programs that they are not currently receiving from other sources. Congress should demand empirical evidence that these programs actually enhance security before funding them, particularly where they impact the rights and privacy of innocent Americans.”

To read the ACLU’s testimony, go to:

To read the ACLU’s report on fusion centers, go to:

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