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A Billion Dollars of Federally Funded Paranoia

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When it comes to mindless excess in the war on terror, it is difficult to compete with the 70+ fusion centers bankrolled by the Department of Homeland Security. They began to be set up around the nation shortly after 9/11 as federal-state-local partnerships to better track terrorist threats. But the centers have been a world-class boondoggle from the start.

Fusion centers have sent the federally funded roundup of data on Americans’ private lives into overdrive. As the Brennan Center for Justice noted in 2012, “Until 9/11, police departments had limited authority to gather information on innocent activity, such as what people say in their houses of worship or at political meetings. Police could only examine this type of First Amendment-protected activity if there was a direct link to a suspected crime. But the attacks of 9/11 led law enforcement to turn this rule on its head.”

Fusion centers do a far better job of stoking paranoia than of catching terrorists. Various fusion centers have attached the “extremist” tag to gun-rights activists, anti-immigration zealots, and individuals and groups “rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority” — even though many of the Founding Fathers shared the same creed. A 2012 DHS report went even further, stating that being “reverent of individual liberty” is one of the traits of potential right-wing terrorists. Such absurd standards help explain why the federal terrorist watchlist now contains more than a million names.

Federal management is so slipshod that a 2012 Senate investigation found that the federal estimates of spending on fusion centers varied by more than 400 percent — ranging from $289 million to $1.4 billion. A DHS internal report found that 4 of 72 fusion centers did not actually exist, but that did not deter DHS officials from continuing to exaggerate the number of such centers. The Washington Post highlighted a few of the dubious findings: “More than $2 million was spent on a center for Philadelphia that never opened. In Ohio, officials used the money to buy rugged laptop computers and then gave them to a local morgue. San Diego officials bought 55 flat-screen televisions to help them collect ‘open-source intelligence’ — better known as cable television news.”

A Senate investigation found that DHS intelligence officers at fusion centers produced intelligence of “uneven quality — oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.” A Senate investigation found no evidence that the fusion centers had provided any assistance in detecting or disrupting any terrorist plots. Sen. Tom Coburn, who spearheaded the Senate investigation, observed, “Unfortunately, DHS has resisted oversight of these centers. The Department opted not to inform Congress or the public of serious problems plaguing its fusion center and broader intelligence efforts. When this Subcommittee requested documents that would help it identify these issues, the Department initially resisted turning them over, arguing that they were protected by privilege, too sensitive to share, were protected by confidentiality agreements, or did not exist at all.”

Spying on your neighbors

The Senate report laid out a cavalcade of fusion-center snafus. The New York Times summarized one case: “An Illinois [fusion] center reported that Russian hackers had broken into the computer system of a local water district in Springfield and sent computer commands that triggered a water pump to burn out. But it turned out that a repair technician had remotely accessed the water district’s computer system while he was on vacation in Russia.”

The fusion centers help create databases with SARs (Suspicious Activity Reports), which are usually garbage even by the lowly standard of government data. The Los Angeles Police Department encourages citizens to file reports on “individuals who stay at bus or train stops for extended periods while buses and trains come and go,” “individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular telephones,” and “joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time.” The Kentucky Office of Homeland Security encourages people to report “people avoiding eye contact,” “people in places they don’t belong,” or homes or apartments that have numerous visitors “arriving and leaving at unusual hours,” as PBS’s Frontline reported. Colorado’s fusion center “produced a fear-mongering public-service announcement asking the public to report innocuous behaviors such as photography, note-taking, drawing, and collecting money for charity as ‘warning signs’ of terrorism,” the American Civil Liberties Union reported.

The Constitution Project concluded in a 2012 report that DHS fusion centers “pose serious risks to civil liberties, including rights of free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion, racial and religious equality, privacy, and the right to be free from unnecessary government intrusion. Several fusion centers have issued bulletins that characterize a wide variety of religious and political groups as threats to national security. In some instances, state law enforcement agencies that funnel information to fusion centers have improperly monitored and infiltrated anti-war and environmental organizations.”

Dylan Murphy reported at CounterPunch, “Between 2005-2007 the DHS and Maryland State Police spied upon and infiltrated anti-war, anti-death penalty and animal rights groups. Despite the fact that these were peaceful protesters who engaged in no criminal activity the surveillance went on for several years with many activists being designated terrorists.” The ACLU’s Nancy Murray wrote, “We now have proof of what peace groups and activists have long suspected: Boston Police officers have worked within the local fusion spying center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), to monitor the lawful political activity of local peace groups and track their movements and beliefs.”

Some of the most harebrained advice comes directly from the DHS. In a 2003 terrorist advisory, it warned local law-enforcement agencies to keep an eye on anyone who “expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government.” DHS officials also urged local lawmen to be on alert for potential suicide bombers who could be detected by such traits as a “pale face from recent shaving of beard.” They “may appear to be in a ‘trance,’” or their “eyes appear to be focused and vigilant”; either their “clothing is out of sync with the weather” or their “clothing is loose.” Perhaps to ensure that there will never be a shortage of suspects, federal experts advised local agencies of another tell-tale terrorist warning sign: someone for whom “waiting in a grocery store line becomes intolerable.”

The Pentagon has its own catch-all definitions of suspicious or terrorist-related behavior. Its Counterintelligence Field Activity program covertly gathered information on Americans who protested the Iraq War or who were involved with websites critical of U.S. military policy. The Pentagon has conducted surveillance on anti-war protests and gatherings, including one at a Quaker meetinghouse in Florida. Names gathered in such fishnets are added to a Pentagon database involving the “terrorism threat warning process,” according to Newsweek.

More and more enemies

The Pentagon’s homeland surveillance efforts should have been no surprise considering the values promoted in its anti-terrorism training materials. The ACLU reported in 2009 that training materials taught soldiers and others that public protests were “low level terrorism.” The ACLU derided that lesson as “an egregious insult to constitutional values.”

Unfortunately, the 2012 Senate exposé of fusion-center follies did nothing to deter other agencies from casting an even wider — and more ludicrous — net for terrorist suspects. In 2014, the National Counterterrorism Center produced a report entitled “Countering Violent Extremism: A Guide for Practitioners and Analysts.” As The Intercept summarized, the report “suggests that police, social workers and educators rate individuals on a scale of one to five in categories such as ‘Expressions of Hopelessness, Futility,’ … and ‘Connection to Group Identity (Race, Nationality, Religion, Ethnicity)’ … to alert government officials to individuals at risk of turning to radical violence, and to families or communities at risk of incubating extremist ideologies.” The report recommended judging families by their level of “Parent-Child Bonding” and rating localities on the basis in part of the “presence of ideologues or recruiters.” Would copies of Atlas Shrugged on a living-room bookshelf be enough to trigger a warning of a family at risk of “extremist ideologies”? Former FBI agent Mike German commented, “The idea that the federal government would encourage local police, teachers, medical, and social-service employees to rate the communities, individuals, and families they serve for their potential to become terrorists is abhorrent on its face.”

Once the government gets into the surveillance business, bureaucratic momentum spurs the continual creation of new classes of potential enemies. A similar metamorphosis occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when the FBI decided to use illegal powers to target people who garnered official displeasure. Nixon White House aide Tom Charles Huston explained that the FBI’s COINTELPRO program continually stretched its target list “from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.”
Though the fusion centers are a dud on the anti-terrorist front, perhaps they are a big success in making Americans wary of speaking out against government abuses. In the 1960s and 1970s, FBI agents were encouraged to conduct interviews with anti-war protesters to “enhance the paranoia endemic in these circles and further serve to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.” Nowadays, many Americans fear that there is a federal agent watching every email or click on the Internet — thus making dissent more dangerous than ever.

This article was originally published in the September 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.