Stronger oversight of intelligence hubs encouraged

Civil liberties advocates say the rules governing state "fusion centers" are unclear, and the centers have experienced mission creep.

Legislation to ensure that the Homeland Security Department continues funding personnel serving in state-run intelligence "fusion centers" around the country has critics of the facilities arguing for greater congressional oversight.

The bill was introduced in May by Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee ranking member Dave Reichert, R-Wash., after hearing news that a center in his state was in danger of losing funding.

His legislation clarifies mandates of a sweeping law enacted last year to implement recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to make certain grants can be used to keep and hire intelligence analysts for the centers.

Intelligence Subcommittee Chairwoman Jane Harman, D-Calif., brought the bill to the floor under suspension of the rules on Tuesday on Reichert's behalf. Consideration of the measure was delayed until later this week, though.

"Fusion centers have had to cease operations because of unnecessary restrictions on funding," Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., said, noting that state and local agents are critical links in sharing intelligence.

On a Tuesday teleconference, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union argued that fusion centers are part of "an incipient de facto domestic intelligence system."

The ACLU released an update to a 2007 report that details recent spying on Maryland peace activists; a surveillance scandal at a California military base, and other incidents. Those cases illustrate what the ACLU views as a dangerous "mission creep" of the fusion centers, ACLU's Caroline Fredrickson said. "We cannot afford to be in the dark," she said, calling on Congress to "do its job" and investigate.

Frederickson said the centers differ in significant ways and there is no single model or standards by which their data gathering and sharing activities are governed. Lawmakers must have a discussion about guidelines and the private sector's role in the information swapping, she said.

"In a multiagency environment when it's unclear which agencies' rules apply, very quickly, no rules apply," added ACLU policy counsel Mike German.

Although Harman chaired a hearing on fusion centers in March, which heard from the Homeland Security Department's intelligence, civil liberties and privacy officers, German argued that members are only hearing from the centers' proponents.

"Nobody's telling the other side of the story," he said. Congressional efforts to date "seem to be providing them with resources to continue developing rather than to see if what they're doing is appropriate," German added.

House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said he was troubled to hear that "ordinary innocent Americans are being spied on for simply exercising their rights. ... The Constitution cannot be ignored under the guise of promoting national security."