Using the September 11 attacks as justification for the implementation of ongoing domestic surveillance, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars building what they call “fusion centers,” or “information sharing centers.”
Until recently, information regarding these fusion centers has been kept secret allowing them to operate with no privacy guidelines or restrictions, and the eerie silence has led the public to question their motives and legality.
Fusion Center Privacy Policies
While the implementation of Fusion Center privacy policies is seemingly progressive in terms of privacy rights, it’s still lacking in that any recommendations made by the PPAC can ultimately be rejected by ARIC’s Executive Board, which happens to be comprised of partner agency police officers. Even the Austin City Council who voted in 2009 to adopt the measure needed to create the center can only make recommendations, but cannot “tell ARIC what to do.”
Post 911, Fusion Centers were created in haste by grants provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and launched with no privacy policies or guidelines in place. This lack of oversight, or arguably free reign, led to the illegal collection of data, or suspicious activity reporting (SAR), and profiling of groups such as Ron Paul supporters, Libertarian parties and Constitutionalists.
Refusal to provide privacy policies
Following the release of a report criticizing the center’s failure to provide the policy, DVIC finally submitted it to The Declaration with promises to post on their website.
The Austin Fusion Center’s PPAC, which according to the audio is currently serving as a model for Fusion Centers across the nation, consists of a community advocate, licensed attorney, information privacy advocate, criminal justice expert and a law enforcement expert.
Foster, who describes himself as a “computer geek,” began his journey in grassroots activism through his interest in computers and concern for Internet freedom. He later became involved with EFF-Austin, a non-profit civil liberties organization geared towards protecting digital rights and educating the public regarding “emerging technologies and their implications.”
Through grassroots activism, Foster realized the “political system is designed for and open to citizen participation.”
“Before becoming more politically active I never knew you could walk off the street into committee hearings at the state capital and testify in support for or opposition against proposed legislation,” said Foster.
“There’s nuance here of course, but it’s a fact that you’re halfway to winning victories simply by showing up.” Foster’s position on the committee is his way of showing up, a move that any citizen can make.
Texas law designates ARIC’s PPAC meetings to be open to the public, meaning anyone can attend and interact with the committee and other ARIC representatives. This fact alone allows for unique opportunities that enable the public to get involved, allowing citizens to monitor their local Fusion Center’s operations.
Although ARIC’s PPAC states the center is to submit annual reports to the Austin City Council, a Feb. 3 Austin Public Safety Commission (PSC) meeting revealed no such reports have been provided, leaving the commission looking to Foster for updates on the center’s clandestine operations.
Wall off, parallel construction and the Michael Morton Act
During the center’s Dec. 13 board meeting, the PPAC’s law enforcement expert, ex-Harris County District Attorney Ted Wilson, is heard expressing concerns regarding the newly drafted Michael Morton Act, a piece of legislation that he says could be interpreted incorrectly and thwart a commonly used police tactic called “wall off.”
“That was a call I got this morning from the U.S. Attorney’s Office as far as the DA’s office in Houston. They’re thinking the Morton Bill means you can’t wall off anymore,” said Wilson.
While the ex-district attorney admits a defendant has an absolute right to obtain information possessed by the Fusion Center that is inconsistent with their guilt, he fears the Michael Morton Act will allow agencies to begin “fishing expeditions” which could result in access to information the Fusion Center prefers to keep private.
On the tape Wilson proceeds to describe “wall off” as a tip provided to law enforcement from information generated within a fusion center, or a confidential informant. For example, a narcotics officer who is privy to information about a car that has just been loaded with 5 kilos of cocaine and is about to leave for Chicago, will provide this information to a law enforcement officer who must then find probable cause to apprehend the vehicle and make an arrest.
In some cases where probable cause does not exist, police have been known to create it.
Another example of this controversial and possibly illegal tactic is when law enforcement steals the license plate off a vehicle they know to possess drugs, and then pulls the suspected vehicle over for violation of no license plate.
The act of creating probable cause is then concealed from police reports making it appear the case began with the traffic stop when it really began with an inside tip. Recreating investigation trails is known as “parallel construction.” Last August Reuters exposed this method as commonly used by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), particularly a subdivision of the DEA called the Special Operations Division (SOD).
The relationship between “wall off” and “parallel construction” seems to be very similar and equally controversial in that the defendant and his legal team are unable to adequately defend their case because “they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses,” reported Reuters.
Fusion Center “products”
The Fusion Center’s primary purpose is to collect, analyze and synthesize data that is organized to create a report, or a “product.” This product is then shared with law enforcement and potentially private sector businesses responsible for a city’s critical infrastructure with the intent to solve crime or prevent terrorist attacks by sharing information, or so is its intent.
In response to Community Advocate Foster’s inquires about the center’s activity, APD Sgt. James Boujemaa confirmed the agency receives hundreds of requests per week, each reviewed by one of the center’s four analysts.
ARIC’s audio reveals that an Austin City Council Member requested information on a specific product, however, the agency was unable to quantify its value based on its lacking knowledge of “success stories.”
While the center’s ability to confirm the value of a product is weak, it is currently in the process of developing a better system that allows them to capture and document “success stories” for future reference.
Perhaps one of the most interesting questions derived from the Fusion Center’s committee meeting minutes, is who exactly has access to ARIC’s products besides law enforcement? ARIC’s website clearly states their analytical focus includes “multiple law enforcement jurisdictions and private sector businesses responsible for the area’s critical infrastructure and key resources.”
According to DHS, “Critical Infrastructure” is the “backbone of the nation’s economy, security and health.” The government’s Critical Infrastructure Sectors include: chemical, commercial facilities, communications, critical manufacturing, dams, defense industrial base, emergency services, energy, financial, food and agriculture, government facilities, healthcare and public health, information technology, nuclear reactors, materials and waste, transportation and water and wastewater systems.
Under this definition nearly anyone in the private business sector could potentially access Fusion Center reports, including large financial institutions.
This type of private sector surveillance facilitated by the government was unveiled in a recent report authored by Mikael Thalen and published at StoryLeak.com.
In his report, Thalen focuses on the cooperation between Bank of America (BOA) and the Washington State Patrol (WSP). A leaked email between BOA’s Global Corporate Security Vice President Kim Triplett-Kolerich and WSP reveals the working relationship between BOA and the state’s Homeland Security run Fusion Center.
This revelation appears synonymous with ARIC’s statement of working with private sector businesses.
Importance of community action
While 2013 turned out to be a revolutionary year in the move towards transparency on domestic surveillance programs thanks to whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, 2014 could also be groundbreaking.
In order to achieve transparency on domestic surveillance programs, the importance of community involvement is essential. The creation of the PPAC and Foster’s ability to represent the community’s interests may be a major move towards education and awareness, one that will hopefully inflict meaningful change not just at ARIC, but Fusion Centers across the nation.
*Note:ARIC promised to upload the board meeting minutes to the center’s website, however, they have failed to uphold their promise as nearly a month has passed with still no publicly available record of the audio, as is required by Texas law.