By Awais Khaleel
Walid Shoebat, a former Muslim and self-proclaimed terrorism expert, explainedto his audience that tapping the phones of Muslim student groups and local mosques will yield “a lot of information” related to terrorism. He further explainedthat the “entire pool of Muslims in a community” must be monitored because most Muslims seek to impose Shariah law on the United States. But to whom was Mr. Shoebat speaking?
No, it was not a meeting of neoconservatives, nor was it a Tea Party rally.
Mr. Shoebat, who teaches that Islam is the anti-Christ, was conveying these views at the first annual South Dakota Fusion Center conference, a government-funded meeting for state law enforcement aimed at training fusion center personnel. So what are fusion centers?
Fusion centers are described by the Department of Homeland Security as collaborative efforts “of two or more agencies that provide resources, expertise, and information to the center with the goal of maximizing their ability to detect, prevent, investigate and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.” In other words, fusion centers serve as data aggregation hubs focused on gathering, integrating, evaluating, analyzing, and disseminating intelligence. With at least 72 locations in all 50 states, the unprecedented amount of data on the American people collected by fusion centers is dwarfed only by the dearth of publicinformation on their exact practices, especially their privacy protections.
Nonetheless, we can draw a number of conclusions from available information.
- Fusion centers are locally and state-directed but receive federal funding and ultimately fall under the managerial duty of the Department of Homeland Security.In other words, despite their decentralized and local nature, all fusion centers maintain a close relationship with DHS, which places multiple analysts in each center.
- The limited available information suggests that privacy and civil rights trainings for fusion centers are either inadequate, irresponsibly biased, or both. Though Walied Shoebat is not the only trainer at fusion center conferences, his inclusion (and that of similarly unqualified and biased individuals) in the curriculum is illustrative of loose training guidelines that mandate little to no training for local, state, and DHS analysts.
- There are at least 72 fusion centers, which can be found in all 50 states.
- Fusion centers collect an unprecedented level of information by partnering with public institutions and private sector entities that provide, among other data, “wage and property records, corporate charters, utility records and a host of government files, including criminal justice information and traffic tickets.”
- Fusion centers often focus on dubious targets. There are no known national priorities for fusion centers, which explains why Ron Paul supporters and peaceful protestors objecting to the BP oil spill have been targeted by centers.
- There is no guarantee that DHS’s privacy protection guidelines have any teeth.There is no information (such as published evaluations) confirming the successful implementation of any privacy or civil rights protection guidelines.
- Despite the obvious shortcomings of the fusion center process, there is no knownmechanism to remove incorrect personal information held and shared by the centers. An individual can contact one of many DHS offices, but there is no promise of a response. Similarly, some fusion centers provide contact information, but do not guarantee replies.
Fusion centers play a growing rolein law enforcement’s war on terrorism and crime. Unfortunately however, these data-sharing hubs fail to prove they’ve taken privacy protection steps necessary to responsibly aggregate and dispense the private and personal information of the American people. Equally problematic, as evidenced by the participation of lecturers like Walid Shoebat, fusion center trainings promote racial profiling of entire communities such as Muslim Americans. This biased and discreditedapproach to law enforcement is especially outrageous because of the vast amounts of information that fusion centers collect on targets. Lest anyone believe this practice is limited to small numbers of minority groups, consider the ultimate consequences of any racial, ethnic, religious, or thought-based profiling: if law enforcement targets an individual solely because he or she is Muslim (or a Ron Paul supporter) – and there are serious indications that this is the case - then it is on a slippery slope towards collecting information on anyone for equally arbitrary reasons.
Fortunately, there is plenty that we can do:
- Learn about your local fusion center by setting up meetings with local center administrators. Contact information may be found here, by visiting fusion center websites, or by contacting local law enforcement for the information.
- Build relationships with law enforcement participating in fusion centers. Advocates are much more likely to receive information on sensitive topics like fusion centers if there is an existing relationship with law enforcement.
- Help develop information on your local fusion center practices, targets, privacy or civil rights protections, and trainings. One of the biggest problems with fusion center data collection and monitoring of individuals and groups is that most people do not know it is happening.
- Advocate for government transparency.Locally and nationally, advocates must continue pushing government to allow public accountability through transparency.
- Advocate for tough regulations that prevent abuse and limit the information shared with law enforcement. It is critical for advocates to pressure state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation that protects how personal information from identity-theft reports, commercial databases, and other sources are sold to and used by law enforcement.
- Join the Face the Truth: Campaign to End Racial Profilingand ask your Congressional representative to sponsor the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), legislation that ensures law enforcement surveillance activities are not the result of racial profiling
Attend the Rights Working Group’s Dec. 1 - 2 convening on Information sharing. Together, we can ensure that the rights and information of the American people are protected – so join the fight today!