DHS Fusion Centers Monitored Occupy Wall Street Activities Using Powerful Tools Like... Google... And Twitter
from the blowing-money-fast dept
The government's extreme reactions to the Occupy Wall Street movement have been well-detailed here at Techdirt. The fact that most of what the Occupy movement did was protect free speech seemed to be lost on the many agencies -- both at local and national levels -- that opened investigations or abused their power in order to silence protesters.
The New York Times has obtained several documents detailing the DHS Fusion Centers' involvement in providing intel and investigative services during the nationwide spread of Occupy protests. What the documents show is a mismanaged hydra of input, each with its own ideas about what should be considered worthy of investigation.
When the Occupy protests spread across the country three years ago, state and local law enforcement officials went on alert. In Milwaukee, officials reported that a group intended to sing holiday carols at “an undisclosed location of ‘high visibility.’ ” In Tennessee, an intelligence analyst sought information about whether groups concerned with animals, war, abortion or the Earth had been involved in protests.The definition of "terrorism" has become incredibly fluid in the years following the 9/11 attacks. Consequently, much of what was determined to be of interest to the Department of Homeland Security was nothing more than the act of protesting, something that has been a part of this nation since its very beginning. More than 4,000 pages were released to the New York Times, detailing the worries of multiple law enforcement agencies around the country. While there seems to be no evidence of outright surveillance (read: interception of communications), there is evidence that many agencies viewed those in the movement as persons of interest.
And in Washington, as officials braced for a tent encampment on the National Mall, their counterparts elsewhere sent along warnings: a link to a video of Kansas City activists who talked of occupying congressional offices and a tip that 15 to 20 protesters from Boston were en route. “None of the people are known to be troublemakers,” one official wrote in an email.
While some agencies (like Tennessee's) seemed to lapse into a state of paranoia, finding any sort of "social movement" to be possibly suspect:
The Boston Regional Intelligence Center, one of the most active centers, issued scores of bulletins listing hundreds of events including a protest of “irresponsible lending practices,” a food drive and multiple “yoga, faith & spirituality” classes.Others rightly recognized that Occupy protests were Constitutionally-protected and opted out of providing intel.
An intelligence officer at the Delaware center responded to an inquiry about Occupy with an email that said, “Our fusion center has distanced itself from the movement because of 1st Amendment rights and because we have not seen any criminal activity to date.”Tragicomically, reports also portray activities such as not shopping as cause for concern.
The report examined protesters’ “attitude towards retail,” suggested that business could be disrupted on the day after Thanksgiving and listed several “specific known threats.” They included credit card detractors equipped with scissors at malls and posters offering “help for people who want to put an end to mounting debt and extortionate interest rates with one simple cut” and a group of people who had declared on a website that they would “intentionally forgo the shopping frenzy.”To be clear, large-scale protests are something local law enforcement should be prepared for, and some intelligence gathering is to be expected. Protests like these, including those specifically aimed at disrupting businesses, travel, etc., should expect some sort of law enforcement response. But when it transfers to a national level, the local response aspect is lost, buried under a deluge of overblown concerns and the Fusion Centers' ability to see terrorism in nearly every act -- even those protected by the Constitution.
Once you get past the potential chilling effects of the Fusion Centers' overenthusiastic collecting of Occupy information, you arrive at something just as upsetting: it's a complete waste of taxpayer funds, something a Congressional investigation uncovered two years ago. (Of course, the DHS has yet to be held accountable for its failings...) It would be one thing if the DHS' worst aspects actually resulted in useful leads and the prevention of domestic terrorism. At least then, the agency would be able to justify the millions of dollars handed out to Fusion Centers. But when your "intelligence gathering" could be performed by anyone with a functional knowledge of the web, you're not really in the "intelligence-gathering" business, no matter what awesome, go-team-USA nameplate is hanging over the door.
It appears that they kept track of Occupy the same way everybody else did if they were so inclined—they looked stuff up online about them and summarized it. The documents are full of links to news stories and videos posted online. One e-mail sent out to multiple fusion centers simply explains how to use Google and Twitter to track publicly listed Occupy activities in various cities.This appraisal by Julian Sanchez is even harsher. The prized Fusion Centers offer nothing that can't be provided by local law enforcement -- a lack of service we, as taxpayers, pay a premium for.
But even leaving aside any concerns about First Amendment–chilling effects, there’s simply no reason for the federal government to be footing any of the bill for local police functions. If, as it seems, fusion centers serve no real homeland security purpose, let’s shut them down and assume municipal cops are perfectly capable of carrying out traditional crowd control functions without help from Washington.The Fusion Centers have done very little to shore up America's counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they've created huge databases of First Amendment-protected activities portrayed as potential terrorism, from people photographing public buildings and structures, to protesters threatening to avoid Black Friday sales. You may not be able to put a price tag on safety, but you can definitely make a very good guess as to how much money's been wasted.