Fusing Surveillance Programs
As revelations about the NSA’s spying programs continue to surface America’s surveillance state continues to grow from local and state nodes. While a series of leaks by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden exposed secret NSA programs that intercepted phone records, emails, voice over IP and other forms of electronic communications used by Americans, the NSA is just one of dozens of intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. The surveillance state has an uncanny way of diffusing itself through non-federal channels.
After revelations by the 9/11 Commission that intelligence agencies at different levels were not “connecting the dots by sharing terrorism clues they had in their possession”, the Department of Homeland Security devised a new system to share intelligence between agencies. Fusion Centers were created to allow for the proper transmission of relevant terrorist and criminal information between all levels of intelligence and law enforcement. In effect, intelligence gathered on terrorists and criminals would be shared at the local, state and federal level. What feeds the Fusion Centers is a continual flow of raw information provided by local police departments, state police departments, private security firms and private sector business partners. Raw information includes everything from suspects license plate numbers, cell phone numbers, email addresses, social security numbers and video surveillance footage. The intelligence provided by all entities – local, state, federal and private – is then amalgamated and integrated into a vast database for analysis. According to a report by the US subcommittee last October titled “Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers”, 77 fusion centers were said to have been built between 2003 and 2007. That same report excoriated fusion centers citing financial waste, production of “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence” and severe lack of oversight that compromised constitutionally protected rights of American citizens.
If you flip to the back of yesterday’s Times, on page A-15 you will find an article discussing a lawsuit being brought against John J. Towery, a criminal intelligence analyst who worked with the Washington State Fusion Center to amass dossiers on anti-war protesters before funneling them into a domestic terrorism watchlist. Brendan Maslauskas Dunn, one of the plaintiffs in the case described to the Times in a previous piece how Towery worked undercover to infiltrate activist groups:“John Towery had an intimate knowledge of our personal lives, our relationships, our political beliefs, even actions we were planning…People Were followed. They were routinely harassed, detained and arrested.”
Another suit brought against the Boston Police Department and the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) which serves as Massachusetts fusion center by the ACLU reveals that surveillance and intelligence officers have been gathering extensive information on peaceful protesters and political activists in the Boston area. Electronic records known as “intelligence reports” have been on file at BRIC since 2007. Despite department guidelines that require all intelligence that does not pertain to criminal activity to be destroyed in 90 days, BRIC maintained its files on non-criminals for as long as five years. Information on protesters and their activities is being collected by a consortium of local, state and federal officers. While no connection between the protest groups activities and criminal or terrorist conduct has been demonstrated intelligence amasses on dissenters. According to the ACLU report Policing Dissent: “the BRIC files list the non-violent actions of peace groups and activists under the heading “Criminal Act”, with labels such as “Extremists”, “Civil Disturbance” and “Home-Sec Domestic” in reports that track groups and people not engaged in crime but merely exercising their constitutional right to peaceful dissent.”
The problem with fusion centers and the NSA spying programs brought to light over the past several weeks is not that they try to intercept terrorist plots but that the sweeping authority they have been given at the local, state, and federal level to carry out blanket surveillance they ensnare citizens who have not been suspected of any wrong doing. Without vigilant oversight these centers are operating more and more as domestic surveillance entities with vast powers to track political dissidence. Although the NSA spying programs and Fusion Centers have been defended by surveillance state apologists as important tools in preventing terrorist attacks evidence abounds that these tools are being used against the people they are purportedly supposed to protect. Lynn Plante, Brendan Dunn and Jeffrey Berryhill can all attest to this.
Criminalizing assembly, labeling protesters as “domestic terrorists”, recording Americans phone calls and reading their emails, compiling data silos to detect aberrant behavior and implementing programs that require employees to monitor one another, silencing whistle blowers and prosecuting them under the Espionage Act are all part and parcel of a wayward surveillance system that knows no boundaries. The leaks revealing the extent to which the NSA monitors our activities cannot be viewed in isolation. As the NSA intercepts and aggregates staggering amounts of personal information, local authorities, state police, security firms and private sector partners work independently towards the same end. Secret surveillance programs are designed to assure that information flows in one direction only, away from those subjected to monitoring and towards the intelligence agencies, shady entities that are at once governmental and private. Ruling classes have understood the power of knowledge at least since Francis Bacon. With an endless array of surveillance technologies and spy programs at its disposal the surveillance state, the political and corporate class it protects will wield tremendous powers over individuals it has come to know everything about. When a government can extract your thoughts and monitor you behavior through surveillance, consolidate that information through databasing to establish a data profile that defines who you are in the eyes of national security and then disseminate information about you throughout an integrated network of authorities without you knowing, it’s only a matter of time before you think, say or post the wrong thing warranting closer scrutiny. And by then it’s too late because the algorithms have already passed their verdict. The file is opened and the investigation begins with your June 26, 2013 Google search for “Terrorism”.