Fusion Centers Questioned On Data Gathering, “Mission Creep”


After Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement agencies at all levels agreed that they should do a better job of sharing information to help prevent future terror acts. Time magazine says making that happen is easier said than done, which is why newfangled, multi-organizational agencies were set up to promote cooperation and overcome turf battles. Critics are charging that these so-called fusion centers are making it all too easy for government to collect and share data from numerous public databases. The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing to restrict fusion centers’ access to data. Legislation is pending in New Mexico that would prohibit any law enforcement agency from collecting information about the religious, political and social associations of law-abiding New Mexicans. In what would be a first for the nation, the bill would allow private citizens to sue law enforcement agencies for damages over the unauthorized collection of such data. Privacy advocates point to Maryland, where last year it was revealed that in 2005 and 2006 undercover members of the Maryland State Police had carried out surveillance of war protesters and death penalty opponents.

Congressional reports have warned of the potential for “mission creep” by the 60 fusion centers. Some focusing exclusively on criminal activity, others on both criminal and terrorist threats, and some on very specific acts, such as human smuggling, gang activity, online predators, or drug trafficking. Much of the funding for the large state centers comes from the federal government, including a new infusion of $250 million in the stimulus law to be spent by 2010 on “upgrading, modifying, or constructing” state and local fusion centers.

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