Monday, July 28, 2008

Confusion center

In my almost four years at the ACLU, I've attended numerous press conferences where proposals we oppose were being announced. Because of the proximity of this office to the state capitol, each opponent press conference that I can recall attending has been at the state capitol, and that's basically neutral ground.

But on Friday I attended a press conference outside that comfort zone when I went deep into the lair of the Pennsylvania State Police for an announcement by PSP and the FBI that PSP's intelligence center has been certified by the FBI as a "fusion center." Essentially, this means that PSP officers and civilian workers and FBI agents will work side-by-side at PSP's intelligence center.

Before the press conference began, someone from the FBI asked me where I was from, and to their credit, I wasn't kicked out once I was identified as ACLU. Of course, with a room full of reporters, that would have made for a better story than the announcement of the certification. FYI, I didn't have to lie my way in either. At the security desk, they simply asked for a driver's license. Maybe I should have ID'ed myself as a blogger for Speaking Freely.

So what's wrong with fusion centers? Funny I should ask since that's the name of a report that national published late last year. The mere existence of fusion centers is not a civil liberties concern. Trouble lurks when there are not proper checks-and-balances to ensure that the information gathered by these centers is not abused. Around the country, some fusion centers have brought corporate and/or military personnel into the process. Federal guidelines also encourage the practice of data-mining, and some fusion centers have collected non-criminal information on private citizens.

I had to chuckle when one of the officers from PSP said that they track hits on the feds' terrorism watch list, in light of our announcement earlier this month that the watch list now has over one million people on it, including Nelson Mandela, the late 9/11 hijackers, the late Saddam Hussein, and Senator Ted Kennedy.

After the press conference and tour were over, I was escorted out by a communications officer from PSP. I asked her about oversight, and while she didn't directly answer that question, she said that this is all information they can collect, anyway.

Unfortunately, we know that both the FBI and PSP have conducted surveillance on and infiltrated Pennsylvania residents who were simply exercising their first amendment rights. Before the Iraq War, the FBI watched the Thomas Merton Center, a peace group in Pittsburgh. Before the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, PSP infiltrated an activist street theater group, and a month before that, PSP abused activists at the National Governors' Association meeting in State College.

We'll need to watch the people who are doing the watching.

Andy in Harrisburg

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