Intelligence fusion centers under scrutiny, accused of undermining civil rights

This week marks two years since the Jan. 6 attack. One of the groups raising alarms in advance was the so-called fusion centers, a national network of state and locally-run intelligence hubs created to gather and disseminate information across multiple jurisdictions. The centers are coming under increased criticism for undermining the civil rights of some Americans. William Brangham reports.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    This week marks two years since the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

    Among the intelligence networks that identified the threat of violence that day, so-called fusion centers, state and locally run intelligence hubs created to gather and disseminate information across multiple jurisdictions.

    But, as William Brangham reports, the centers are coming under increased criticism for undermining civil rights.

  • William Brangham:

    As rioters overwhelmed police barricades near the Capitol on January 6, eventually breaking into the building itself, it was clear that law enforcement did not anticipate the scale or the violence of the crowd.

  • Rioters:

    Stop the Steal! Stop the Steal!

  • William Brangham:

    But that didn't mean there weren't warnings.

  • Mike Sena, President, National Fusion Center Association:

    Prior to January 6, a number of analysts around the country were identifying individuals that were talking about potentially bringing weapons to the U.S. Capitol.

  • William Brangham:

    Mike Sena is director of a fusion center in Northern California and president of the National Fusion Center Association.

  • Mike Sena:

    We held a national call with about 300 participants around the country talking about the threat, talking about what we believed may happen and the potential that — of what could happen.

  • William Brangham:

    The head of the D.C. fusion center later told the January 6 Committee that he saw — quote — "information suggesting that some very, very violent individuals were organizing to come to D.C."

    As the nation watched, it was just one of the many warnings that went unheeded that day. Fusion centers were created after the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11, designed to be a national network that could more effectively share information between federal, state and local law enforcement.

    Today, there are 80 fusion centers, and they're each run by the state or locality where they operate.

  • Mike Sena:

    One of the roles that we play is trying to identify threats in advance. And to do that, a lot of it deals with looking on online threats, dealing with tips and leads that are reported.

    And our job is to triage all that information and try to give that to those folks in law enforcement and public safety, so that they can make the best educated decisions that they can.

  • Michael German, Former FBI Special Agent:

    What January 6 showed to me is that this intelligence network they built was entirely ineffective.

  • William Brangham:

    Michael German is a retired FBI special agent who focused on domestic terrorism.

  • Michael German:

    The problem is, there's so much collection, that it's hard to discern which threats are real and which ones aren't, and particularly when there's so much disinformation and misinformation being pushed through this network of fusion centers.

    So, it just dulls the response, that you're constantly hearing this alarm go off.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a boy who cried wolf situation.

  • Michael German:

    Exactly.

  • William Brangham:

    German is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and the co-author of a new report titled "Ending Fusion Center Abuses."

    He argues the centers have been ineffective in assisting in counterterrorism efforts, they lack effective oversight, and that the broad collection and sharing of intelligence that is not connected to any specific crime has led some fusion centers to abuse civil liberties.

  • Michael German:

    For almost 20 years now, these institutions have improperly collected information about people exercising their First Amendment rights.

  • William Brangham:

    For example, in 2020, German says hacked leaked data revealed that fusion centers in at least Minnesota, Maine, Texas, and California surveilled and then hyped the threat posed by Black Lives Matter protesters.

    Environmental activists have also been targeted.

  • Lauren Regan, Executive Director, Civil Liberties Defense Center:

    A fusion center is this Orwellian black hole.

  • William Brangham:

    Lauren Regan represents two local climate groups that are suing Oregon's Department of Justice, which operates the state'S fusion center, alleging they were being surveilled despite not being suspected of committing any crimes.

  • Lauren Regan:

    Oregon, through its fusion center, is spying on lawful political organizations and activists, primarily using digital means, merely because they were advocating, in this case, in opposition to the Jordan Cove LNG pipeline.

  • William Brangham:

    The Oregon DOJ declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

    Regan says what her clients allege happened to them in Oregon is not an isolated incident, with similar tactics seen during the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline.

  • Lauren Regan:

    We hope that this case will basically ensure that the government and the state are checked in their overstep of using these types of fusion centers as sort of black holes of spying and intelligence gathering, where the public doesn't get to know what is being done or why.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the criticisms that's been leveled against fusion centers is that, in looking for illegal activity, sometimes, people who are engaging in lawful, constitutionally protected activity like protests have been targeted. What do you make of that?

  • Mike Sena:

    Well, when you look at the role that fusion centers play in First Amendment-protected events, we have multiple standards on the information that we can collect, as well as what is suspicious behavior.

    Now, when we look at First Amendment-protected activities, the role of fusion centers is to protect those events. And when you look back at Charlottesville and the attack that happened there with the vehicle ramming, that, for me, was a turning point in why fusion centers have to have a stronger role in trying to identify threats before they happen.

    People who may be planning to go to an event with weapons, people who may be planning on doing violence or doing some criminal acts when people are trying to express their freedom of speech or their other protected rights, our role is to protect those people, their physical safety, but it's also to protect privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.

  • William Brangham:

    To ensure that balance is met, the Brennan Center's Michael German argues, independent federal oversight is needed as a watchdog on fusion centers.

  • Michael German:

    When they were created, I worried that the federal government was promoting them as a way to keep their hands clean, let the state and locals run these centers. That way, when they get in trouble, we will say, not us.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a bad apple over there.

  • Michael German:

    Exactly. And what they don't seem to understand is that, if you're operating in a network, the network is only as good as its worst actor.

    And if the worst actor is putting misinformation into the network, all of the information then becomes questionable.

  • William Brangham:

    Twenty years since 9/11, the January 6 attack showed that the collection of intelligence, and acting smartly on it, remains an ongoing challenge for law enforcement in the United States.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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