April 10 saw protests, teach-ins and light brigade actions across the country as part of the national day of action against fusion centers. The Day of Action sparked an internet dialogue about fusion centers that shone much needed light on the centers which can often slip under the radar of the communities they operate in.
Like most threats to civil liberties, fusion centers endanger the constitutional rights guaranteed to all people, however their effect is most pronounced in politically vulnerable communities. These are most often communities of color, those with political beliefs outside the mainstream, or both.
According to The Constitution Project:
“Recent reports from across the country bear testament to the potential for problematic profiling at fusion centers, particularly regarding bulletins and intelligence reports circulated by fusion centers. These are a few examples:
- The February 2009 “Prevention Awareness Bulletin,” circulated by a Texas fusion center, described Muslim lobbying groups as “providing an environment for terrorist organizations to flourish” and warned that “the threats to Texas are significant.”...
- ...A Missouri-based fusion center issued a February 2009 report describing support for the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul or third party candidates, possession of the iconic “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and anti-abortion activism as signs of membership in domestic terrorist groups.
- The Tennessee Fusion Center listed a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to public schools on its online map of “Terrorism Events and Other Suspicious Activity.” The letter had advised schools that holiday celebrations focused exclusively on Christmas were an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.
- The Virginia Fusion Center’s 2009 Terrorism Risk Assessment Report described student groups at Virginia’s historically black colleges as potential breeding grounds for terrorism and characterized the “diversity” surrounding a military base as a possible threat."
The potential for abuse is high because there is virtually no oversight over the actions of fusion centers. The city, county, state and federal departments represented in fusion centers do not have uniform guidelines, making it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that the constitutionally offensive practices of one department do not infect the investigations of the others, tainting the whole.
This near total lake of oversight leads to threat assessments, which direct local law enforcement priorities, like this one, uncovered by the Texas Observer:
“A portion of the threat assessment—stamped “Law Enforcement Sensitive” and part of a PowerPoint presentation—was inadvertently sent to the Observer as part of a broader open-records request. “Although the North Central Texas Fusion System analysis has found no specific intelligence to indicate any threats to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl game,” the assessment states, “law enforcement officers should be on the lookout for suspicious individuals, especially those of Middle Eastern appearance.”
Beyond racial profiling, fusion centers are also used to target and profile political activists. A fusion center in Washington State was the base of operations for a long-term domestic spying operation focused on peace groups. The operation saw unprecedented cooperation between the U.S. Army, the FBI and law enforcement from every level within the state. This targeting yielded no arrests, uncovered no plot and conclusively demonstrated that law enforcement’s combined priorities focused on suppressing constitutionally protected First Amendment activity instead of public safety.
Fusion centers pose a difficult challenge for defenders of basic civil liberties. Because they are not governed by independent oversight, they cannot be reformed through changes to public policy. The only way to ensure that the immense investigatory powers they hold will not be used to violate the Constitution or profile people because of their race or their political beliefs is to shut the fusion centers down.