The three California affiliates of the ACLU have filed a joint request for detailed information on the focus and methods of two little-known government centers in the state that gather broad data about American citizens in the name of fighting terrorism.
The three ACLU affiliates - in Northern California, Southern California, and San Diego and Imperial counties - are seeking information under the California Public Records Act about the Joint Regional Intelligence Center in Norwalk and the State Terrorism Threat Assessment Center in Sacramento.
'We don't know a lot about these centers. There's a lot of secrecy as to the methods they're using and what kind of information they're gathering,' said Tori Praul, a privacy researcher with the ACLU of Southern California who is coordinating the records requests.
This much about the two California data centers is clear, however: they are part of a de facto new domestic intelligence apparatus that poses potentially serious threats to privacy. Established by the Bush administration's National Strategy for Information Sharing, the California centers are among a growing network of some 40 such centers nationwide that collect criminal records, public- and private-sector data and, in Los Angeles, vaguely defined information from 'suspicious activity reports' generated by LAPD officers.
'The personal information of innocent Americans is being collected and used by these government fusion centers without proper safeguards. This opens the door to abusive police practices of the past, such as the FBI's targeting notable civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.,' said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. 'All too often we've given our government new powers to protect national security, only to have them used against innocent Americans. We need to learn from our mistakes, not repeat them.'
The ACLU recently updated its November 2007 report, 'What's the Matter with Fusion Centers,' in which the group warned about the potential dangers of these new institutions, including ambiguous lines of authority, excessive secrecy, troubling private-sector and military roles, and collection of information about peaceful activities. The update explains how recent developments have only confirmed the urgency of these warnings.
'We warned that the structure of fusion centers was ripe for abuse, and that recruiting every corner beat cop to file reports on innocent, everyday behavior was a bad idea,' said ACLU National Security Policy Counsel and report co-author Michael German. 'Already, we have seen criminal abuses in California, and many reports of law enforcement personnel wasting their time harassing perfectly innocent individuals.'
Praul said the records requests by the ACLU's California affiliates are aimed at finding out 'everything we possibly can about how these centers function'who participates, what kinds of records are housed there, who has access to those records, what types of surveillance methods they employ, under what legal authority their activities are carried out, and what kind of oversight systems are in place to ensure that the centers comply with the law.
'Ultimately, we hope that by obtaining more information, we can assess the legality of their intelligence gathering. We are concerned that they may be targeting innocent individuals and groups based on characteristics such as ethnicity, religion or political activity. We are also concerned that they may be gathering information without the proper legal basis for doing so,' she said.