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Fusion Centers: Your Shadowy Neighborhood Spy Hubs
Created in the aftermath of 9/11 as a counter-terror program under the auspices of DHS, fusion centers have broad authority to gather and share "intelligence" on anyone they deem "suspicious."
News Beat is a multi-award-winning podcast that melds hard-hitting journalism with hip-hop to inform, educate, and inspire. In this episode, we take you inside the secretive and controversial world of fusion centers, counter-terror agencies with dramatically expanded missions since 9/11.
Hey, all. We’re back with an in-depth look at fusion centers, 9/11-era domestic intelligence hubs located across the United States that function as clearinghouses for local, state, and federal law enforcement intelligence gathering. It’s possible that many of you have never heard of fusion centers. For others, especially protesters and activists, it’s also possible that events you’ve attended—including Black Lives Matter demonstrations—have caught the suspicion of these uber-secretive surveillance hubs. Fusion centers continue to operate with near impunity in every state despite long-standing concerns over their bloated budgets, civil liberties violations, lack of transparency, and little evidence that they’ve successfully thwarted terrorism plots.
And in other News Beat news, we’re out with a new ‘Cypher’ episode, featuring hip-hop sorceress LiKWUiD. Long-time listeners will certainly recognize this News Beat co-artist in residence from her compelling, often heart-wrenching lyrics in several important episodes. She’s absolutely incredible.
Find out a little bit more about her extraordinary work as a prolific hip-hop artist, DJ, educator, and mentor on this special News Beat Cypher cross-feed drop with the extraordinary pod ‘Hip-Hop Can Save America!’ Check it out—It’s the third most recent episode in the feed, below Fusion Centers and our re-release of “Radical Caucasian Extremism.”
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Why We Covered This Topic
Coming off our episode about widespread surveillance by police agencies using controversial facial recognition technology, we thought it was important to explore yet another domestic spy program that’s largely avoided national scrutiny.
Created in the aftermath of the 9/11 Commission to improve counter-terror intelligence sharing, fusion centers have ballooned into complex, multi-agency spy hubs whose missions now include “all-crimes, all-hazards.” What that means in practice, critics contend, is anything deemed “suspicious” by authorities, such as protesting or snapping a photo of a landmark or bridge, for example, which can be logged and disseminated to a network of law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that fusion centers have ever prevented a terrorist threat—explaining their pivot to more a generalized law enforcement strategy.
Of equal concern is how much fusion centers are costing U.S. taxpayers. According to a U.S. Senate investigation that concluded in 2012, Homeland Security’s financing of fusion centers was estimated to be between $289 million and $1.4 billion. (That’s right, Senate investigators were unable to secure a precise figure from a federal agency funded by our own tax dollars.) In announcing their findings, Senate investigators said the ambiguity, “raises questions about the value [of] this amount of funding and the nation’s more than 70 fusion centers are providing to federal counterterrorism efforts.”
Considering the secrecy around fusion centers, civil liberties groups have raised serious concerns about their impact on people’s constitutionally protected rights. Among the most recent examples is a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Policing Project at NYU School of Law, accusing Oregon’s TITAN Fusion Center of improperly surveilling Indigenous and environmental activists who opposed the 229-mile-long Jordan Cove LNG pipeline. The since-canceled project would’ve been the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in Oregon.
Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor in the criminology department at the University of Southern Maine and a leading expert on fusion centers. He tells News Beat podcast that these agencies have been involved in monitoring large-scale social movements since their inception, including Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock. A massive hack of dozens of law enforcement agencies in 2020, including fusion centers, revealed the Maine Fusion Center monitored Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd.
“They had a list of every demonstration happening in Maine,” McQuade says, “and it was obvious the data was just taken from Facebook. It said, here's the location, here's the number of people who RSVP, and here's the ‘maybes.’ They just lifted it right from Facebook. So that was kind of funny.”
Included in another breach known as the so-called BlueLeaks hack were dubious intelligence reports claiming BLM protesters were collecting bricks for rioting. The false brick-gathering claims were reportedly lifted from right-wing social media accounts, not from sophisticated intelligence gathering.
“This tells you how fusion centers are more like ‘Reno 911’ and ‘Keystone Cops’ than Big Brother,” McQuade says. “This is, like, staggeringly unprofessional.”
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
How fusion centers have expanded beyond their original counter-terror mission into full-fledged domestic intelligence-gathering operations. As the experts featured in this episode explain, fusion centers pivoted from post-9/11 counter-terror to “all-crimes, all-hazards.”
Fusion centers historically have been cloaked in secrecy. Even basic details, such as their costs and locations were hidden. They also created their own classification systems, according to McQuade, making it difficult for the public to access information.
Fusion centers have broad authority and the means to collect vast amounts of information on everyday people. According to Annie Hudson-Price, a senior staff attorney with the Policing Project at NYU School of Law, some centers have credit reports and driving records on file, which can be included in a larger personal dossier. Even some of the most innocuous behaviors, such as snapping a photo of an infrastructure project, can be considered suspicious activity.
We examine how Oregon’s TITAN Fusion Center allegedly facilitated the monitoring of a group of Indigenous and environmental protesters opposing a natural gas pipeline project.
Who We Interviewed & What They Said
Annie Hudson-Price, senior staff attorney with the Policing Project at NYU School of Law, and a civil rights attorney
“Frankly, it doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on. There's a good chance that someone out there has had a reason to create a record on you, and it is likely in one of these various fusion center databases, whether it's facial recognition, credit scores, driver's license, anonymous reports, or a criminal record.”
Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, member of the Klamath Tribes, an Indigenous and environmental activist, and renowned artist
“Someone needs to be held accountable for the illegal surveillance of Native American women, Klamath tribal members. We’re aunties, we’re water protectors, and we’ve been standing up against a foreign transnational Canadian fossil fuel company, which would be the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the state of Oregon. So I’ve spent the last four summers suffering under the terror of these wildfires, my communities, burning down, our treaty lands. Enough is enough. I ask that the judges and Justice Department please be reasonable and humane and understand the level of damage this type of non-transparent digital policing has on our democratic freedoms and human rights.”
Brendan McQuade, assistant professor in the criminology department at the University of Southern Maine and author of “Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision”
“Fusion Centers are designed in such a way to evade accountability because they exist between different regulatory regimes, and they have different personnel. And what's legal for a state police officer to do is different than what's legal for an FBI officer to do. So this gives them a tremendous amount of leeway.”
For an in-depth analysis of fusion centers and their roles in America’s current mass incarceration regime, read Brendan McQuade’s book: “Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision.”
McQuade also co-authored a recent report about Maine’s fusion center, which includes allegations from a Maine State Trooper’s whistleblower complaint. Among these: The fusion center was involved in surveillance of environmental activists, possessed an illegal database of gun owners, and violated privacy laws. Read the report.
Read the complaint filed by the Policing Project at NYU School of Law against Oregon’s TITAN Fusion Center.
NBC News story on fusion centers: “20 Years After 9/11, 'Fusion Centers' Have Done Little to Combat Terrorism”
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Audio Editor/Sound Designer/Producer/Host: Manny Faces
Editor-In-Chief/Producer: Christopher Twarowski
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Episode Art: Jeff Main
Executive Producer: Jed Morey