Fusion centers treat protest as a threat

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By Suraj K Sazawal

In the days leading to Trump’s January 6 rally, neither DHS or the FBI prepared an “intelligence bulletin”, a commonly used alert to notify law enforcement about upcoming events of interest in their area.  After the attack on the U.S. Capitol, when Congress searched for an explanation to the colossal security failure, the then chief of the Capitol Police, Steven Sund, testified at a Senate hearing that intelligence reports ahead of January 6 showed that “the level of probability of acts of civil disobedience/arrests” ranged from “remote” to “improbable.”

But on January 4, the nation’s fusion centers held a special call to “discuss alarming information they were gathering.”  According to the Wall Street Journal:

“The offices were seeing an unsettling amount of online posts about people planning to bring weapons to the event, raising the potential for violence, said one participant in the call. As is protocol, the participant said, the information was funneled through the Washington, D.C., fusion center to the federal and local agencies handling security for Jan. 6.”

So why didn’t the alarm bell sounded by the fusion centers prompt more action by law enforcement?  “The issue here was not the lack of intelligence or the lack of information,” Christopher Rodriguez, a DHS official who oversees Washington’s DC’s fusion center, testified before Congress. “The issue here was the inability, or the unwillingness, to act on the intelligence.”  Rodriguez added that signs for potential violence on January 6 started showing up in intelligence reports as early as December (probably around the same time the former president started tweeting about January’s election certification deadline).   

A hundred days after the attack on the Capitol, there are still many questions about the former president’s role and why law enforcement was so unprepared.  But one thing is clear: fusion centers, those intelligence-sharing hubs originally created two decades ago to thwart potential terror attacks, have largely been ineffective, cost millions to maintain each year, and are increasingly being used to target First Amendment-protected activities.

Since their creation in the wake of 9/11, fusion centers in almost every state have improperly monitoring and shared information to other law enforcement agencies about anti-war activists, the Occupy Movement, Muslim-Americans, Water Protectors at Standing Rock, and labor organizers.   But since the police killing of George Floyd, the centers have set their sights on the nationwide protests against injustice and police violence.

In Arizona, records obtained by Phoenix New Times show that the state’s fusion center was monitoring civil rights activists and victims of police violence across the state, “while largely ignoring threats made by members of far-right groups, including some related to election safety.”

A fusion center in Maine came under scrutiny after a recent data breach revealed it had improperly tracked racial justice protesters, and that analysts had shared unsubstantiated rumors from social media about potential violence at protests.   In one of the most egregious instances, officials at the Maine fusion center:

“disseminated a DHS “open intelligence” report based on a tweet from an anonymous account called Marlene45MAGA. The tweet included two pictures, of bricks neatly stacked next to a sidewalk and a roadway, and asked, “What if hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes & antibacterial soap had magically appeared to fight the #WuhanFlu like these bricks showed up to help #protest2020 destroy neighborhood businesses? Who thinks the #GeorgeFloydProtests spread across America faster than #coronavirus?””

In Texas, The Intercept reported that an Austin-based fusion center widely shared two informational bulletins to law enforcement that listed over 20 events connected to the Black Lives Matter movement.  The fusion center claims to “safeguard” First Amendment rights by only reporting on “activities where the potential use of incitement rhetoric could be used to instigate acts of violence”. But then why did the information bulletin include information about a virtual event to celebrate Juneteenth that was sponsored by a local museum?  

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz is pushing a budget bill that would dramatically increase funding for the state’s fusion center. He says it’s needed to address the threat of domestic terrorism, specifically “in identifying people with extreme ideological and violent views who seek to commit acts of violence within our communities.”  But now that everyone has seen how policing works in the state of Minnesota, does anyone believe its surveillance powers won’t be aimed at its already over-policed communities?

There are no quick fixes to the many law enforcement problems in this country.  But there is a misguided faith by policymakers that more surveillance and intelligence sharing will be the magic elixir to make them disappear. Not only has this approach produced few results, but the enormous investment in fusion centers and other surveillance tech belies a techno-utopian fantasy that there is a technological solution to our country’s policing problems.