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Policy Solution

Ending Fusion Center Abuses

The federal government provides state and local intelligence hubs with funding, personnel, and database access — all without adequate oversight.

View the entire Reform Agenda for the Department of Homeland Security series

For almost two decades, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has supported the development of a national network of 80 fusion centers. Operated by states and localities, fusion centers incorporate federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel, first responders, and select private-sector representatives to collect, analyze, and distribute intelligence. While the federal government initially promoted them as hubs for sharing counterterrorism information, fusion centers quickly expanded their missions to include any crimes or hazards.

DHS provides these centers with funding, personnel, and access to federal intelligence, but it has failed to ensure that they have used these resources appropriately. As a result, fusion centers have long produced flawed analysis, abused their authorities to monitor people engaged in First Amendment–protected activities, and leaked sensitive law enforcement information. This domestic intelligence model has undermined Americans’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

Fusion centers have repeatedly targeted minority communities and protest movements under the guise of counterterrorism or public safety. In their early years, they often singled out American Muslims for unwarranted scrutiny. Their bulletins have regularly painted racial and environmental justice activists as menacing threats. Fusion center reports are widely disseminated to local police and federal law enforcement, likely contributing to their heavy-handed responses to these protests in recent years. The participation of private companies, including some that have been the subjects of protests, in fusion centers raises the possibility that these operations sometimes serve private interests rather than public safety.

Fusion centers continue to be susceptible to abuse as protest movements react to events, creating new targets for unwarranted scrutiny. For example, fusion centers have amplified FBI and DHS threat warnings that falsely lump pro-choice activists together with abortion foes as potential “abortion-related violent extremists,” even though only anti-abortion militants have a history of engaging in deadly violence. footnote1_dqx927a 1 Federal Bureau of Investigation (hereinafter FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (hereinafter DHS), Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism, May 2021, 7, https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/fbi-dhs-domestic-terrorism-strategic-report.pdf/view; and Jana Winter, “Law Enforcement Prepares for Potential Violence, Unrest Surrounding Roe Decision,” Yahoo News, May 4, 2022, https://news.yahoo.com/exclusive-law-enforcement-prepares-for-potential-violence-unrest-after-roe-decision-204137717.html. As states criminalize abortion, investigations of those seeking, providing, or even just supporting access to reproductive services will fit within fusion centers’ “all crimes” remit, footnote2_b47b84a 2 Permanent Subcomm. on Investigations, S. Comm. on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Federal Support for and Involvement in State and Local Fusion Centers (hereinafter Federal Support for Fusion Centers), October 3, 2012, 94–96, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/10–3–2012%20PSI%20STAFF%20REPORT%20re%20FUSION%20CENTERS.2.pdf. making it likely that fusion centers will heed law enforcement requests for assistance.

At the same time, there is little to suggest that fusion centers have provided meaningful assistance to federal counterterrorism efforts. And even as they have broadened their missions beyond counterterrorism, there is no evidence that they have contributed substantially to reducing or solving serious crime. They do, however, facilitate broad, unregulated information sharing among a variety of public and private entities with little oversight or public accountability, which poses a serious security liability that was realized when hackers breached a fusion center contractor in 2020, exposing hundreds of thousands of sensitive records from the FBI, DHS, and other law enforcement agencies.

As the 20th anniversary of the creation of DHS approaches, the Brennan Center has undertaken a comprehensive review of the department’s efforts to carry out its primary mission of keeping the country safe from terrorism. Our April 2022 report, A Course Correction for Homeland Security: Curbing Counterterrorism Abuses, identified structural and operational problems endemic to DHS-sponsored fusion centers. footnote3_9mr8uau 3 Faiza Patel, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, and Harsha Panduranga, A Course Correction for Homeland Security: Curbing Counterterrorism Abuses, Brennan Center for Justice, April 20, 2022, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/course-correction-homeland-security. This report expands on these critiques and proposes solutions through the lens of federal funding, support, and oversight. While fusion centers are run by state or local agencies, they continue to receive significant federal investments. The federal government has an obligation to guard against the misuse of the resources, systems, and personnel it provides, and to ensure that Americans’ constitutional rights are not infringed upon by the improper collection, retention, and dissemination of personally identifiable information of persons not reasonably suspected of criminal activity.

Accordingly, the secretary of homeland security should take immediate action to ensure that DHS grants to fusion centers are transparent and used for their intended counterterrorism purpose. The secretary should also require regular audits of fusion centers to ensure that data is protected against unauthorized disclosure, and that DHS resources are not used in violation of constitutional rights. Congress should establish a special inspector general to audit the national network of fusion centers to detect waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality, and should use the results of this audit to establish a permanent, independent federal oversight body to ensure that future violations of any laws, regulations, or policies are discovered and remedied in a timely manner. These reforms will help to ensure that fusion centers’ capabilities and resources are not abused, and that Americans’ rights to freedom of speech and association are preserved.

Read the full report. 

End Notes