Sticky fusion

By Michelle Chen Apr 01, 2009

In a House Subcommittee hearing today, civil liberties advocates tried to shed some public light on one of the darkest corners of law enforcement. The hearing focused on so-called “fusion centers” funded by Homeland Security and scattered across the country. Lawmakers have touted the centers as a vital enhancement for terrorism-related investigations, by expanding police surveillance powers and encouraging “information sharing” across local and federal agencies. Subcommittee Chair Jane Harman (D-California) even emphasized the use of the centers in “fighting the violence along the Southwest border.” Looking back to earlier era of COINTELPRO big brotherhood (when the FBI sought to crush the Black Power movement and other activists with impunity), civil libertarians say fusion centers are laying the groundwork for a new kind of police state under a sprawling guise of “counter-terrorism.” An ACLU report released last year, drawing from press accounts and legal research, warned:

it is becoming increasingly clear that fusion centers are part of a new domestic intelligence apparatus. The elements of this nascent domestic surveillance system include: • Watching and recording the everyday activities of an ever-growing list of individuals • Channeling the flow of the resulting reports into a centralized security agency • Sifting through (“data mining”) these reports and databases with computers to identify individuals for closer scrutiny

The targets seem to be groups and individuals deemed politically subversive, and echoing the ruthless targeting of Black activists in the 1960s, simply being Muslim or Arab could be enough to trigger interrogation and detention. In a pending lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the intelligence-gathering framework underlying fusion centers led Dr. Moniem El-Ganayni, a nuclear physicist and naturalized American citizen, to lose his security clearance at the U,.S. Department of Energy:

During seven hours of interviews, representatives from the DOE and the FBI never questioned El-Ganayni about the possibility of security breaches or the mishandling of classified information. Rather, they questioned him about his religious beliefs, his work as an imam in the Pennsylvania prison system, his political views about the U.S. war in Iraq, and speeches he’d made in local mosques criticizing the FBI’s treatment of Muslims in Pittsburgh.

Rolling Stone reported in 2008 on a related homeland security initiative, a “Joint Terrorism Task Force” in Chicago, which enabled police to pounce on just about any suspicious activity they stumbled upon. The steroidal vigilance that fuels such operations is apparent in one officer’s comment:

"Most people who come to America who are Middle Eastern come for a good reason. But there’s still a percentage that may be here that don’t like us. They are with the extremists.”

It makes sense that law enforcement agencies should be able to adapt to new dangers, but the mission of homeland security is metastasizing into something different. For some powerful institutions in our communities, the standard of evidence for flagging people as potential terrorists has become “maybe they don’t like us”—and the ghost of a threat seems to be spawning a real one.