It Takes A Massive Surveillance Apparatus To Hold Us Back: Fusion Centers, Ferguson and the Deep State


Here’s a question: How much of a national security threat are people protesting the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown?

If you answered, There’s no national security threat; they’re exercising their First Amendment rights, which should be celebrated, then you’re obviously a pre-9/11-American, which is enough to get you disinvited from the major TV propaganda shows.

Local news media reported on the Black Lives Matter protest in Boston, and noted, without really thinking about it, that “the state police Commonwealth Fusion Center monitored social media, which provided “critical intelligence about protesters’ plans to try to disrupt traffic on state highways.” It didn’t really register because journalists are mostly not watching fusion centers like we are, and aren’t seeing them come up again and again and again and again, lurking at the edges of stories about free speech and national security, and policing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say.

Think, then, of fusion centers as state-based NSAs overseen loosely by the Department of Homeland Security. Set up after 9/11 to provide “joined-up intelligence” and thwart terrorist attacks, they quickly found that there just wasn’t enough terrorism of the kind not ginned up by government informants themselves to sustain 88 separate local antiterrorism centers in addition to the NSA, FBI and CIA. So they expanded their definition of terrorism to cover many other things, which in Massachusetts have included harassing peaceful activists and elected officials while missing actual terrorist plots, and now, for lack of anything better to do with their tax dollars, vetting licenseholders for marijuana dispensaries and fostering anonymous threat reporting in public schools.

We have advocated against fusion centers for a long time. Last week, we received the results of a FOIA request to Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Fusion Center that throws more light on the kind of information they hold, and the kind of society that is being constructed without our consent.

To make sense of the discussion that follows, it helps to know that all fusion centers collect “Suspicious Activity Reports.” They receive and coordinate intelligence from above via the FBI and the National Counter-Terrorism Center, but they also receive tips and leads from the public “See Something, Say Something” hotlines. If they receive information constituting reasonable suspicion of a crime, they will forward (though not often in a timely manner) information about it to the relevant police department. However, they also have a whole database for suspicious activities that are nonetheless completely legal. The way we see it, as proud pre-9/11-Americans, if there’s no probable cause of a crime, law enforcement has no right to keep any kind of file on you, and to do so grossly violates the Fourth Amendment. So we FOIAed the Commonwealth Fusion Center’s practices regarding “SARs.” The FOIA contains so much of interest that it can’t be covered in one article, so this is the first of several.

It turns out that the Commonwealth Fusion Center currently holds 237 “Suspicious Activity Reports” in a database powered by ACISS. There are, apparently, many kinds of suspicious activity.** But the most telling thing about the information in this FOIA request is that 117 of the SARs – or nearly 50% of the total – don’t fall into any of the categories the fusion center is supposed to use, and are placed under “Other.” So, even with a large list of suspicious but completely legal activities to choose from, CFC couldn’t classify nearly half of its SARs. This tells us something about what’s happening here: There are people or organizations that the CFC is so anxious to keep tabs on, that even when the information on them doesn’t constitute suspicion of any crime, and even when it can’t even be classed as any kind of definable suspicious activity according to a constitutionally abhorrently low standard, they’ll keep a file on you anyway, dammit.

The most interesting subcategory I’ll be discussing here is the six SARs that are described as “Sector-Specific Incidents.” This anodyne phrasing likely conceals one of the most underreported aspects of the surveillance state: The fact that Big Oil, Big Ag and Wall Street have their own industry-specific surveillance outfits feeding data to the fusion centers. So-called “ISACs”, or “Information Sharing and Analysis Centers”, are well-funded, often staffed by former intelligence personnel, and completely exempt from FOIA. The partnership of the fusion centers with banks is necessitated by wanting smooth access to everyone’s financial records; but inevitably, it means that banks are assumed to not be targets of fusion center investigation, even though they are much bigger financiers of terrorist groups than the only person demonstrably caught by the phone metadata dragnet so far. In the same way, the new oil and gas industry ISAC group provides a raft of information on environmental activists to the fusion centers, and the IT ISAC performs the same function for IT firms, defense firms and Monsanto. In this way, private firms can socialize the risk that their practices may lead to public outrage, and employ the surveillance state to launder their attempts to deter opposition.

The fusion centers are one expression of a dangerous underlying ideology where private corporations use the fear of terrorism to co-opt the personnel and resources of the state, bolstering profits and insulating members of the elite from prosecution. The revolving door keeps elected officials in line in the hope of a big industry payday on leaving office, and neatly also excludes plebeians from influential positions. The mechanisms of state control – the debt collector, the street stop, the mass surveillance dragnet, and our continual use of war as a first resort – send a message to an increasingly nonwhite plebeian class to keep their heads down and toe the line if they want to keep even an unstable and unrewarding job. The crisis in Ferguson, and the contemptuous refusal to indict, let alone convict, the armed servants of the elite, sends the clear message that plebeian lives aren’t worthy of protection. Like the Marquis de Ste.-Evremonde, they can’t imagine that there will ever be a real penalty to pay for their crimes against the Constitution and the poor. As a lover of history, I venture that they may be incorrect in that belief.

On December 4 there will be a rally of thousands on Boston Common to protest the lack of police accountability, called “Enough Is Enough”. RSVP here.

** The categories are Acquisition of Expertise, Aviation Activity, Breach / Attempted Intrusion, Cyberattack, Eliciting Information, Express or Implied Threat, Materials Acquisition / Storage, Misrepresentation, Observation / Surveillance, Photography, Recruiting, Sabotage / Tampering, Sector-Specific Incident, Testing / Probing Security, Theft / Loss / Diversion, Weapons Discovery, and Other.

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