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ACLU warns against 'no rules' surveillance apparatus
Nick Juliano
Published: Tuesday July 29, 2008

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Troubling indications are emerging that the government is building a massive, virtually oversight-free domestic surveillance apparatus that could be cataloging private information on untold numbers of innocent Americans all under the guise of fighting terrorism, a new report warns.

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for increased oversight of the Bush administration's National Strategy for Information Sharing, which calls for "fusion centers" to allow local, state and federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies to share information on Americans. The group warns that the Bush strategy essentially deputizes every police officer into the intelligence community and points to protocols that encourage officers to report innocent everyday activities as evidence of the strategy's potential for abuse.

"Fusion centers push local law enforcement to become the eyes and ears for a larger national security state," Jay Stanley, one of the author's of a new ACLU report (.pdf), said on a conference call Tuesday.

The ACLU first raised questions about the fusion centers' potential for abuse in a December report. Its Fusion Center Update, released Tuesday, points to reported abuses that have occurred in just the last six months. Mike German, the reports' co-author, says the very nature of centers that share information among various organizations at all levels of government invites abuse.

"In a multi-agency environment where it's unclear which rules apply, very quickly no rules apply," he said.

In its report, the ACLU warns that the fusion centers, whose origins pre-date 9/11, seem to be laying the groundwork for precisely the type of society George Orwell warned about.

Overall, 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

Such a system, if allowed to permeate our society, would be nothing less than the creation of a total surveillance society.

The ACLU is "very pointedly looking at Congress to do its job here" in imposing safeguards on the fusion centers, said Caroline Fredrickson, head of the group's Washington legislative office.

Not only can these centers lead to decimation of First Amendment rights -- the ACLU points to police infiltration of anti-war protesters, harassment of journalists and surveillance of Muslims -- but they also stretch the already-thin resources of local police forces, making fighting actual crime that much more difficult.

"The federal government is actively encouraging these state and local law enforcement officers to expand the bounds of what they do in their communities," German said. "To become intelligence collectors and not just law enforcement officers."