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October 23, 2014

An uncertain role State intelligence center tight-lipped about successes, failures

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Posted: Saturday, June 7, 2014 7:10 pm | Updated: 12:19 pm, Tue Jul 22, 2014.

MONTGOMERY — Last week, 13-year-old Jovana Hill was returned to her family in Tuscaloosa after more than a month as one of the state's most-sought missing persons.

The Alabama Fusion Center was on the case, though it's not clear exactly how.

Two years ago, Riverchase Galleria kiosk worker Ulugbek Kodirov pleaded guilty to aiding terrorist organizations and plotting to assassinate President Barack Obama.

The Fusion Center may have played a role in his arrest. Or maybe not.

For the past six years, the Fusion Center, a 10-person state agency, has been collecting intelligence on terrorist threats and other criminal activity from its office in downtown Montgomery. While other law enforcement agencies tout their successes and make pleas for more funding, officials of the Fusion Center are tight-lipped about what they do — and whether they’ve helped catch any criminals at all.

"The Fusion Center does not have arresting officers and does not maintain arrest records or statistics," Anna Morris, spokeswoman for the Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency, wrote in an email to The Star.

The center is one of 78 such offices, funded jointly by state and federal governments, that have popped up across the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A congressional commission, set up after the attacks, concluded that better information-sharing among law enforcement and intelligence agencies might have caught the terrorists. Fusion centers, where state employees collect tips and share them with federal agencies such as the FBI, were proposed as a solution to that problem.

In recent years, though, fusion centers in other states have come under fire for allegedly monitoring the activities of harmless political outsiders, from Ron Paul supporters to the Occupy movement. And privacy advocates say the centers exist in a gray area between state and federal governments, shielding them from proper oversight.

"Fusion Centers are definitely an area of the surveillance state that hasn't gotten the same attention that other areas have, and that's by design," said Nadia Kayyali, an activist for the California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

More than terrorism

Ben Bawden, a spokesman for the National Fusion Center Association, a lobbying group for such centers, says they aren’t  doing anything police haven’t done in the past — they’re just doing it in a more organized way.

“State and local intelligence collection has been around forever, but we haven’t always called it that,” Bawden said.

While fusion centers vary from state to state, Bawden said, most of them spend their time collecting information to help solve non-terrorist crimes.

“It doesn’t matter the flavor of the crime,” he said. “Whether it’s murder, or drug trafficking, or serial burglaries, or terrorism.”

The Alabama Fusion Center's own privacy policy, available online, offers glimpses of how the center does its work. Analysts at the center take tips from various sources, including anonymous tips, trained interviewers, public records and the private sector.

Analysts assess the information to determine whether it's worth retaining or passing on to other law enforcement agencies. According to the policy, the center can keep information "based on a level of suspicion that is less than reasonable suspicion," but is banned from collecting information on people because of their religious or political views, race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

Fusion centers in other states have similar policies, but those policies have done little to quell the concerns of critics, who say the centers’ mission has crept away from the anti-terrorism role and, potentially, into monitoring constitutionally protected activity.

“Fusion centers were sold to Congress as a way to fight terrorism,” said Peter Swire, who teaches law and ethics at Georgia Tech and served on President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies, in an e-mail. “The overwhelming majority of their work, however, has nothing to do with terrorism.”

Swire said fusion centers have an incentive to justify their existence by spying on political protesters simply because they might later turn out to be connected to terrorism.

Last month, the New York Times reported that fusion centers in several states kept track of Occupy protests — generating roughly 4,000 pages of emails and reports about those protests.

Bawden said that monitoring was no different than keeping track of the Super Bowl or other major activities likely that are to draw a crowd to a community, and thus require security.

“It’s not about the threat that the event poses, it’s about the fact that there is an event where something could happen,” he said.

Division of labor

State law enforcement officials initially wouldn’t talk in detail about the distribution of labor within Alabama’s fusion center.

Searching online, The Star found the names, office phone numbers and specialties of nine analysts at the Alabama Fusion Center as of February, listed in a Powerpoint presentation given by then-Fusion Center director Joe Davis. A call to one of the analysts confirmed the veracity of the list.

Only two of the nine have terrorism explicitly in their portfolio. One of those analysts also specializes in the sovereign citizens movement and militia groups, the document shows, while the other has expertise in gangs and hate groups.

Four others deal with "criminal cases." One has "financial services" and "water" listed as his areas of expertise. Another monitors emergency services and critical manufacturing as well as social media. One analyst focuses solely on human trafficking and another on "HIDTAs."

That may be a reference to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, an intelligence-sharing effort for law enforcement agencies created at the height of the drug war in the 1980s.

Role unclear

The Davis powerpoint refers to a number of "threats" in Alabama, including criminal motorcycle gangs, the sovereign citizens’ movement and hate groups.

Mentioned by name in the Powerpoint is Ulugbek Kodirov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan who worked at a kiosk in a Hoover shopping mall before being arrested on a charge of plotting to kill President Obama. Kodirov pleaded guilty to that charge, and to a charge of aiding a terrorist group. His plea agreement says he contacted three people — none of them named in the agreement — in an effort to purchase a sniper rifle and grenades. Some of the court documents in Kodirov’s case are sealed.

Asked whether the Fusion Center was involved in Kodirov's case, Morris and Law Enforcement Agency general counsel Jason Spann both declined comment.

Kodirov's attorney, Lance Bell, said he wasn't aware of any Fusion Center role in the arrest.

"What's a fusion center?" Bell asked.

Recent press accounts cite the Fusion Center as being involved in the search for Hill, the missing Tuscaloosa girl, though center officials wouldn't comment on that investigation, either.

“These are questions that are more appropriately directed to the agencies that worked them,” said  Jason Swann, the Law Enforcement Agency’s counsel. Attempts to reach a spokesman for the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, which handled that case, were unsuccessful.

Asked if the Fusion Center had any way to track its success or efficiency in stopping or solving crimes, Swann said that was a difficult question.

“How do you prove a negative?” he asked. “How do you measure things that didn’t happen?”

Tracking the cost

By at least one metric, the  influence of Alabama’s fusion center seems to be shrinking.

The center asked for only about $249,000 in its state budget request for fiscal 2014, according to figures The Star obtained through a public records request. The budget request for 2013 was more than twice as much, nearly $533,000.

The Star asked for the budget requests after state officials said they didn’t have exact numbers for the cost of the center, which is part of the larger budget of the state law enforcement agency.

A lack of spending oversight was among the criticisms that emerged in a report on fusion centers released by the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2012. That report — which didn't mention Alabama's center — said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had lost track of its spending on fusion centers.   

“Some fusion centers have gone years without a physical presence and without filing any intelligence reports,” the report states.

Senate investigators also concluded, after observing the centers in operation for 13 months, that there was no clear evidence the centers had contributed to stopping terrorist attacks.

On the table

While Alabama’s Fusion Center appears to have seen a cut in state funding, it’s not clear how much money the state got from the federal government this year. Overall, federal funding for fusion centers has gone down in the last year, said Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association.

“There’s been a slight decrease at the federal level, combined with an increase in state funding in most states,” Sena said.

Just why the Alabama Fusion Center’s funding dropped is unclear. Swann noted that state law enforcement arms have only recently reorganized under the newly-formed Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. The agency is reviewing various functions to see where it can make cuts.

Asked if the Fusion Center could be reviewed and cut entirely, Swann wouldn’t rule that out.

“Everything is on the table,” he said.

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