DHS to use controversial fusion centers during conventions

The Homeland Security Department is working with state and local governments in Colorado and Minnesota to support the sharing of information during the national conventions next week, relying on so-called fusion centers, which civil liberties groups have opposed as bordering on domestic spying.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis will provide support to state and local governments to help groups connect and exchange data during the Democratic and Republican national conventions, taking place in Denver and Minneapolis, respectively, according to DHS. The office plans to provide support from its Washington headquarters to existing fusion centers in the two cities, which will collect and analyze reports of suspicious activity. DHS also will provide on-site support to both fusion centers.

The centers, which have sprouted up in almost every state, collect information on terrorist threats from numerous sources, including criminal investigations, the media and tips from the public. They then "fuse" it to create a fuller picture of potential threats in their area. The 9/11 commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks promoted the fusion-center concept, and U.S. homeland-security and intelligence officials regard them as providing well-sourced information that federal agents can't match.

"Fusion centers did not get built and did not get instituted because [federal officials] decided they wanted to," said Thomas McNamara, program manager for the Information Sharing Environment Initiative in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "States did it because they saw the need to get a mechanism for information sharing up and running so they could communicate within regions. Now federal agencies are working carefully with state and local governments to gradually build up these fusion centers to the point where they represent an almost complete, but not fully instituted, national network for sharing information relating to terrorism and other crimes."

But civil libertarians have voiced concerns that the fusion centers have the potential to violate Americans' privacy. They argue that the centers gather intelligence information not only on possible terrorist and criminal activities but also on the actions of civilians. In the case of the conventions, they said the centers have the potential for government organizations to stop citizens' rights to protest and demonstrate about political issues.

McNamara, who also served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism, said those concerns run contrary to the goal of controlled information sharing. "Through the benefit of technology, we can do it better, in a more secure manner, and with much greater protection of civil liberty and privacy [than the] old system, which was largely ad hoc," he said. "The information is only going to flow to those who are supposed to get that information, and it will be protected and kept private from everybody else."

In addition to the fusion centers, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis worked with state and local agencies to produce joint special event threat assessments for situational awareness and analysis. For example, they identified critical infrastructures and resources that are close to convention events and could be targets of terrorism or other criminal activity.

DHS isn't the only agency involved in security and enhancing communications at the conventions. The U.S. Northern Command will be in charge of the Defense Department's support for the conventions, deploying 250 to 300 military personnel to support the Secret Service, said Lt. Cmdr. Gary Ross, the command's spokesman.

Defense will support the convention with a number of unique capabilities, Ross said, but declined for security reasons to provide details. The kinds of assistance Defense has provided for similar national special security events, such as presidential inaugurations, includes medical and aviation support and management planning for disasters and unforeseen events, he said.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, part of the Northern Command, will monitor the Federal Aviation Administration's temporary flight restriction zones over the Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul areas, Ross added.

Bob Brewin contributed to this report.

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