Fusion Center takes aim at terror

But secrecy alarms civil libertarians

By Stephanie Ebbert, Globe Staff  |  September 26, 2005

FRAMINGHAM -- Three miles down the road from Shoppers World, in a
nondescript office inside State Police headquarters, a team of young
intelligence analysts is launching a new front against terrorism.

Called the Commonwealth Fusion Center, the operation was funded by the state
last fall and officially opened in May with a mission: to provide statewide
information sharing among local, state, and federal public-safety agencies
and the private sector in coordinating intelligence against terrorism.

In a secretive operation that is alarming civil-liberties advocates, 18
civilian analysts examine criminal data and 23 intelligence officers --
State Police troopers who have the power to arrest -- work in the field.
Raytheon Co. won a $2.2 million contract to develop intelligence-sharing
software for the state that aims to integrate databases and help analysts
root out criminal trends.

The Fusion Center received more than $3 million from the federal and state
governments this year, excluding salaries for the 23 intelligence officers
and Major Robert Smith, the center's leader, who are paid by the State
Police, according to Katie Ford, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office
of Public Safety.

Another $1.7 million in state money has been allocated for 2006, and the
Commonwealth is directing $10 million in federal funds to regional efforts
to upgrade technology to communicate with the Fusion Center's.

Fusion centers are an emerging trend nationwide, and at least a half-dozen
states have established such centers in recent years. Last year Governor
Mitt Romney, who chairs an intelligence-sharing group for the Homeland
Security advisory council, called for a national network of state-based
fusion centers.

''American law enforcement at the state and local levels have never done
this kind of thing before," Smith said.

But what politicians regard as a vital technological defense against
possible terrorist threats, civil libertarians view as an expensive new Big
Brother. The American Civil Liberties Union is raising concerns about the
potential for the center to use the new database to gather and store
information on private citizens.

The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request in May seeking Fusion
Center policies, some of which are still being developed, said Carol Rose,
executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

An advisory committee that will oversee the Fusion Center has not yet been
appointed, Ford said.

''We need to have transparency," Rose said. ''There's all sorts of questions
about whether this is good from a civil-liberties perspective or
public-policy perspective. Is it going to create a new level of bureaucracy?
Is that more effective or less effective?"

Smith said the Fusion Center will hew to a privacy policy in federal
regulations that prohibits criminal intelligence from being collected unless
there is reasonable suspicion of a crime. According to those regulations,
intelligence agencies cannot collect information on people's political,
religious, or social views unless it is relevant to that crime.

''It's not a system that we're putting into place to spy on people. We
really aren't," Smith said.

Similarly, state Public Safety Secretary Edward Flynn insisted that the
center is not overstepping its bounds. ''The Fusion Center analyzes criminal
information already collected in the ordinary course of police business,"
Flynn said in a letter to the editor of the Globe this summer.

Analysts will have rapid access to financial information about individuals
suspected of a crime, Smith said, ''but we always have had access to it. If
there's a predicated criminal offense, we can do searches."

Last week, state officials allowed a Globe reporter to visit the center,
which is accessible only to analysts who work there and three high-ranking
members of the State Police. Inside, the 1,600-square-foot office is
mundane, outfitted with 23 narrow work stations. Five flat-screen
televisions monitoring local and national news cover one wall, and in the
room are a conference table, mini-refrigerators, a microwave, and toaster
oven. Someone brought in a bundt cake. Analysts' pods are tacked with
snapshots of friends and children; there was a wall poster of a kitten.

The State Police is looking to expand to a larger facility in Central
Massachusetts that could house both a new crime lab and an expanded,
12,000-square-foot Fusion Center with rooms for interviews and training,
Smith said.

Last month, the center chased 27 tips from residents, police, or other
Fusion centers; in July, there were 38 tips, Smith said.

Smith declined to provide details about the nature of those tips or whether
they were provided by people who have access to people's homes, like
meter-readers, as the governor has suggested. (The terrorism tip line,
advertised on the state public safety website and by local police
departments, is 888-USA-5458.)

Speaking generally, Smith said tips include reports of people photographing
or videotaping critical infrastructure, flying over potential terrorist
threats, or trespassing.

Often analysts help debunk rumors of threats, saving authorities time and
money, Smith said. After a series of manhole explosions in the North End in
August, analysts at the Fusion Center quickly assured officials no terrorist
link could be found. They also helped deflate a rumor about MS-13 gang
members plotting to kill a law enforcement officer.

''Rumor control is a big thing for us," Smith said. ''After 9/11, everything
like that takes on a real nefarious intent. . . .Without that ability to
control that rumor, huge resources could be deployed."

The center's staff members also help local authorities screen crime data for
clues of criminal activity. ''The notion is that by investigating credit
card fraud or cigarette smuggling, you might find a chain that goes
overseas" and potentially funds terrorist activities, Flynn told the Globe
in an interview earlier this month.

Analysts also help local departments better assess criminal analysis. When
the Springfield Police Department's computer system produced inaccurate
crime statistics, a Fusion Center analyst helped work out the bugs and
analyze the crime data for more targeted policing.

The center is staffed 24-seven with employees taking turns as watch officer
as well as phone and TV news monitors, said supervisory security analyst,
Lisa Palmieri. Each analyst specializes in four areas. For example,
Palmieri, 43, oversees Hezbollah, government facilities and airports,
Eurasian organized crime, and human trafficking.

The president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Analysts,
Palmieri previously worked in Army intelligence and insurance

She and several other Fusion Center analysts were recruited from the New
England State Police Information Network, one of six regional centers funded
by the US Department of Justice that shares intelligence on criminal
networks and helps local police departments analyze crime. Boston and eight
surrounding towns are also forming a regional fusion center.

Critics say the fusion centers are unnecessary bureaucracy. Christopher H.
Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer who exposed the military's
surveillance of citizens during the 1960s and 1970s and who now is a
professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, said that the FBI's Boston
office would be better suited for the job than the State Police.

''It creates the illusion that we're doing something. But it's only a
illusion," Pyle said. ''What we're doing is wasting money. It's a
justification for getting more grants from the Department of Homeland

C Copyright <>  2005 The
New York Times Company

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