Colorado ‘fusion center’ to step up intelligence gathering during DNC

The Colorado Information Analysis Center, a hub for state, local and federal law enforcement, is "like police intelligence units on steroids" claims one civil liberties expert. (Photo/Bob Spencer)

Federal and state law enforcement officials will increase intelligence operations during the Democratic National Convention, overseeing an information war room that will be staffed around the clock with analysts who access a dozen databases while receiving reports of "suspicious activity" — activity that some civil libertarians claim could be nothing more than engaging in anti-war protests or photographing federal facilities that could be targeted for terrorist attack.

Central to the efforts is Colorado’s “fusion” center, a place designed to facilitate intelligence sharing among federal, state and military agencies in an effort to prevent terrorism. But civil rights advocates fear that the Colorado Information Analysis Center, (CIAC) now housed in an inconspicuous office building in Centennial, a southern suburb of Denver, could enable unwarranted spying on Americans exercising their First Amendment rights at the convention.

Inside the building, intelligence analysts with the Colorado State Patrol, Colorado National Guard and Federal Bureau of Investigation take local reports of suspicious criminal activity and determine what merits further investigation.

“It’s a filtration point for information,” says Lance Clem, a representative for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which directs the state troopers who work at CIAC. “We take information from the international and national level and decide what needs to be pushed out to local law enforcement agencies.”

CIAC personnel also take reports of suspicious activities from citizens and other police departments. If a report is deemed by analysts to require additional investigation, it is shared with the appropriate law enforcement officials, but if a report is not determined to merit further inspection, CIAC workers make a log of the event, according to Clem, essentially creating a massive collection of data, some of it reliable and some of it not.

When the Democratic National Convention is held in August, CIAC will be operating 24 hours a day and be fully staffed with up to eight intelligence analysts at any given time.

“CIAC is going to be expanding hours for physical presence in the office,” Clem says about the convention. “Any known threats specifically related to the convention are going to go right to the United States Secret Service and FBI, but CIAC is going to be there to take any reports that citizens have.”

Malcolm Wiley, a spokesman for the Secret Service, says he can’t confirm if members of his agency will be physically present at CIAC while the convention takes place, but he does acknowledge the center’s part in analyzing intelligence data during the event.

“They’ll be sharing information with other intelligence gatherers,” including the Secret Service and FBI, Wiley says.

The military will also be sharing intelligence information and providing support through U.S. Northern Command, (NORTHCOM) a unit stationed at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs that was created in 2002 for homeland defense missions.

While NORTHCOM personnel will not be working at CIAC during the convention, the unit will share information that is relevant to the center,as it has done occasionally in the past, according to Master Sgt. Anthony Hill, a NORTHCOM spokesman.

A diffuse national intelligence network

The Colorado fusion center is just one facet of a diffuse national intelligence network that has grown up quietly since Sept. 11, 2001. The terror attack on Washington, D.C., and New York showed that the United States had many reports on the suspicious actions of the hijackers but no system for sharing information among state, local and national law enforcement agencies. For a couple of years, various federal programs to consolidate possible terrorism data failed to catch on or were ruled out by public indignation over privacy rights.

Facing frustrations over security clearances and difficulties communicating with federal authorities, state and local law enforcement officials started creating their own sharing networks in the form of fusion centers. One model was the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, small regional groups composed of investigators from multiple U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies created in 2002 to compile intelligence from a select group of local, state and federal officials in the name of fighting terrorism.

In 2003 the Department of Homeland Security began financially supporting the fusion centers, even going so far as to station homeland security officers at centers in a number of states, including Colorado. The Department of Homeland Security reports that the United States has 58 fusion centers, which have received $254 million in taxpayer money since 2004.

“This is something that sort of started organically, but then they’re like police intelligence units on steroids,” says Mike German, a counter-terrorist operations specialist and former FBI agent who is now national security counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s legislative office in Washington., D.C.

“It’s actually the federal government that’s encouraging them and directing them now,” German says.

CIAC opened in October 2004 to respond to possible threats during the year’s election season, but it now handles threats not only relating to terrorism, but to all crimes and hazards, including natural disasters.

Jim Lancy, president of the Colorado Emergency Management Association (CEMA) and a board member of the center for two years, says “CIAC is looked at as a model for the rest of the country in how to build a fusion center and how to work effectively at crime and terrorism prevention."

CIAC falls under the command of the state patrol, and policy decisions are made by the board, which meets quarterly.

The CIAC board consists of the executive director of the Department of Public Safety, the director of the Division of Fire Safety and the state’s lieutenant governor, along with representatives from CEMA, the County Sheriffs Association of Colorado, the Colorado Chiefs of Police Association, the Colorado Department of Public Health, the Department of Corrections and the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs. Unlike other states, such as Iowa and Minnesota, the Colorado fusion center does not include any representatives of civil liberties groups on its governing body.

Governance of centers varies widely in different states, making it difficult to find out who is directing intelligence-gathering decisions.

“This is something that’s really growing,” says German. “There are very ambiguous lines of authority. "It’s unclear who’s in charge. It’s unclear whose rules everyone in the fusion centers are playing by.”

From TIPS to fusion

In 2002 the Bush administration attempted to implement Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System ), encouraging private residents — including utility and postal service workers — to report suspicious activity to the federal government, storing reports in various law enforcement databases.

The idea of enlisting private citizens as intelligence agents drew widespread criticism, and Operation TIPS was eventually abandoned.

“This is the resurrection of the TIPS program in many ways,” German says of the fusion centers, noting that in Colorado hundreds of law enforcement officials, emergency service providers and utility workers were recently dispatched as “terrorism liaison officers”(TLOs) to report noncriminal suspicious activity to CIAC.

Suspicious activity is defined broadly as actions that could lead to terrorism and includes reporting individuals taking notes or photos or talking publicly about extremist political beliefs.

“This system is really turning every state and local police officer into a spy for the intelligence community,” German says, noting that the information collected by citizens could make it to the Central Intelligence Agency or the military. “They’re not just stand-alone centers; they’re actually networked to ever other center, and it is part of a larger program.”

Another fusion center precursor, state Joint Terrorism Task Forces, is still operational and sharing information with the centers.

In 2005 the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado released documentation showing that the Colorado Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) had spied and collected data on peaceful protesters, including license plate numbers and names.

"CIAC does not generate nor keep this kind of information," says Clem. "When CIAC learns of a suspected terrorism case, CIAC turns it over to the JTTF, and the JTTF takes it from there. CIAC does not investigate cases because that’s not its function. What is usually retained in databases relates to events, not individuals."

Clem also states that there is no set time frame as to how long CIAC holds data of suspicious activities reports. He says the center usually doesn’t have use for incident report information that is older than two or three months.

The use of CIAC for the upcoming Democratic National Convention and the recent implementation of terrorism liaison officers in the state raises civil liberties questions.

In 2007 German released a report on behalf of the ACLU that found multiple problems with fusion centers, including the practice of mining through data to find terrorism suspects.

“It seems like a lot of the purpose around these centers is to accumulate data that can be mined. The purpose is to engage in data mining,” German says, noting that in his report, a 2007 audit by the Justice Department found the process to be prone to error.

German points out that in July it was revealed that undercover Maryland state troopers had been spying on peaceful protesters and were sharing information on activists, including names, that was accessible to the state’s fusion center and federal agencies like the National Security Agency, prompting the Maryland officials to reevaluate intelligence-gathering policies, according to news reports.

The involvement of military personnel with law enforcement operations at the centers is also a concern.

“Centers were actually incorporating national guardsman and active-duty military in some cases,” says German. “We want to have a military to defend against outside threats, but we don’t want to turn that military against the American people.”

When asked about CIAC’s role during the convention, German says, adding: “These centers have very robust police powers and domestic intelligence-collecting powers, and what we’ve seen in the past is that when police agencies are given secret powers to spy, they abuse those powers. And where there is very unclear line of accountability, the chances of something bad happening under that system were very high.”

CIAC meets all federal privacy guidelines and laws, according to Clem, protecting data reports with a top-secret security clearance, locked safes and a fortified building protected against outside bomb explosions.

Law enforcement officials have access to more than two dozen state and federal databases in CIAC, including the Homeland Security Information Network, a highly classified database that was created to bring a national counter-terrorism communications network to all states

“Unfortunately, because this is such a dispersed network of fusion centers, it’s not one program to attack,” German says about privacy concerns surrounding the centers. “That’s why it’s going to be a much more difficult thing to approach and frankly much more dangerous because it is happening at a local level.”

For more reporting on fusion centers, see our sister sites

Minnesota Independent: You don’t know MN-JAC: Anti-terror fusion center grapples with security flaw, new privacy policy

Iowa Independent: Iowa intelligence fusion center ‘connects the dots’

Michigan Messenger: Michigan’s invisible intelligence agency

 

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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