“It really is an unprecedented amount of surveillance of Americans,” stated Mike Brickner, communications and public policy director for the ACLU of Ohio. “That’s a very big jump in my mind from where the mission started to where they are now.”
Julia Shearson, executive director of the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agreed, saying, “at minimum, we join those requesting that fusion centers be held accountable to taxpayers through increased oversight and transparency.”
The Department of Homeland Security describes fusion centers as “focal points within the state and local environment for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information....”
William Schenkelberg, director of the Cleveland-based Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center, said the centers arose from the perceived failure of law enforcement agencies, pre-9/11, to share intelligence data. According to Schenkelberg, fusion centers share criminal trends, tips and information among police agencies which might disclose potential national security threats.
“You get criticized for doing that level of crime analysis,” said Schenkelberg, “but you don’t know who it’s connected to.... We work on a local felony level. We get the region talking together, so that if something does happen, we have that communication.”
The ACLU, however, has countered that the secrecy and data-mining practices of fusion centers, as well as their use of subcontractors with little public accountability, reduces transparency and threatens people’s privacy. For example, some centers have issued bulletins that advocate the surveillance of political activists and racial and religious minorities. Many Islamic organizations have objected to fusion centers collecting information about citizens who are simply exercising their First Amendment rights.
Housed on the ninth floor of the Cleveland police headquarters, the Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center was founded in 2008. It now has a full-time staff of six and receives about $1 million annually in Homeland Security grants. It is among 72 state and regional fusion centers nationwide.
Schenkelberg said the center has had a positive effect on controlling local crimes, including flash mobs. He cited several other fusion center success stories, such as helping to crack a fake-ID ring with connections to China, obtaining information on criminal Gypsy gangs and assisting with the recovery of stolen firearms.
Schenkelberg claimed that the center does not access private messages or web pages, and collects online information that is available to anyone searching the Internet. He also said the fusion center answers to a governing board of city, county, state and federal officials.
The center revamped its counterterrorism mission two years ago after criticism from law enforcement officials. “Is it hitting the core of what the mission is, as far as terrorism prevention? I don’t think yet it’s doing that,” Cuyahoga County Sheriff Bob Reid said at the time.
Since 2010, fusion centers have been required by the Department of Homeland Security to follow federal privacy and civil rights policies, though there is little way to verify such compliance. Further, the centers reportedly partner with the military and with private-sector companies to collect information.
The question remains as to whether the increased surveillance provided by fusion centers results in increased safety, and if so, whether that is accomplished at the expense of further erosion of people’s privacy and civil rights.
As noted by the ACLU, “The lack of proper legal limits on the new fusion centers not only threatens to undermine fundamental American values, but also threatens to turn them into wasteful and misdirected bureaucracies that, like our federal security agencies before 9/11, won’t succeed in their ultimate mission of stopping terrorism and other crime.”
Sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer, www.dhs.gov, www.neorfc.us, www.wkyc.com, www.aclu.org
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