Northwest Watchdog: Oregon Fusion Center, House of spies or terror-threat prevention?

Northwest Watchdog: Oregon Fusion Center, House of spies or terror-threat prevention?

Reprinted from Northwest Watchdog

PORTLAND – The funding for a data collection center aimed at identifying and defusing terrorist threats in Oregon is in flux.

The Oregon Terrorism Information Threat Assessment Network is one of several Federal Fusion Centers spread across 77 U.S. cities that collaborate with local law-enforcement agencies on suspected terrorist threats.

But from Portland to Boston the effectiveness of these centers, along with their potential to violate free speech and privacy rights, is being questioned. Federal lawmakers critical of the programs have accused the centers, an after effect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, of collecting “crap intelligence.”

Portland could be a good example of that, free speech advocates say.

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a non-profit progressive legal organization based in Washington D.C., has obtained documents from the Department of Homeland Security via the Freedom of Information Act that show these centers were used, in part, to spy on peaceful protesters.

“What we’re seeing in the documents we’ve obtained is routine, systematic use of anti-terrorism criminal investigative authority against what is acknowledged to be completely peaceful and lawful in the United States,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of PCJF. “It is the apparatus of the intelligence entities turning to devote those resources against (organizations) most would not recognize as being terrorists.”

For example, in Portland the documents from DHS showed that the mayor and police collaborated to shut down Occupy Portland camps. DHS reported: “Business community and PD want this to end,” according to the documents obtained by PCJF.

“It’s really the government of the United States turning its sights on the people of the United States at a time when people are fighting back against the system,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

Critics say the wide array of intelligence collected by these centers mucks up criminal investigations and, in the case of the Boston bombings, keeps law enforcement from preventing the real threats.

But Oregon state officials say the center is needed.

Oregon Department of Justice communications director Jeff Manning said the center was abuzz with threats of mass school shootings shortly after the Newtown, Conn., and Clackamas Town Center shootings.

“I don’t know how real any of that ever was but the fusion center was able to track all of that,” he said.

Manning said the fusions centers came about after 9/11.

“Secrecy was big and sharing information was not and the fusion center was sort of a realization that came with a huge price after 9/11,” he said.

But funding for the fusion centers, including the one in Oregon, is in jeopardy. It’s not the first time the center’s fate — funded by state and local tax dollars — has been up in the air.

“We’ll see what happens at this point,” Manning said. “We are hoping to secure the funding to keep it open and functioning.”

Verheyden-Hilliard said the surveillance of groups like Occupy Portland that are pushing back against the establishment creates an atmosphere where people become afraid of the consequences of protesting the status quo.

“The violation, too, is the chill that it impacts on people,” she said. “They’re making what is completely peaceful, lawful cherished free speech look like it’s criminal when it’s the farthest thing from criminal.”

Whether it continues will be up to the Oregon Legislature, which is now in the closing days of session and the thick of the budgeting process.