Our experience in intelligence gathering and law enforcement taught us the value of pro-active information sharing among first responders at all levels of government and the intelligence community. And we have little doubt that fusion centers, if run properly, can play an important role in addressing terrorist and other serious criminal threats.
But are they being run properly? As the recent Senate investigation report corroborates, the evidence demonstrates the very real risks fusion centers pose to civil liberties – and the need for safeguards to lessen those risks.
For example, a report we helped to prepare for The Constitution Project found that several centers have issued bulletins that characterize a wide variety of religious and political groups as “threats” to national security, including Muslim hip-hop bands and supporters of former presidential candidate Ron Paul. Since fusion centers routinely share “suspicious activity reports” with other centers and the FBI, innocent Americans exercising constitutionally protected rights can end up in centralized counter-terrorism databases.
Beyond the problems with the federal role highlighted in the Senate report, historically, local law enforcement officers have not been trained to conduct counter-terrorism operations. There is no precedent for enlisting law enforcement at all levels, many without training in constitutional limits on surveillance, to share vast amounts of data in large, interconnected databases. The explosion in surveillance technology and information sharing must be accompanied by adequate training and safeguards to protect Americans’ personal liberties, including the rights of free speech, free assembly, and freedom of religion.
Fusion centers also should limit the information they collect and retain to what is necessary to serve their legitimate law enforcement purposes. One of the dangers of the national fusion center network is that misinformation developed in one jurisdiction can rapidly spread to other law enforcement agencies all across the country. To prevent errors from spreading, we need a process for individuals to challenge the information in the database whenever they suffer a harm they believe is the result of a mistaken fusion-center report.