FBI nudges state 'fusion centers' into the shadows

Document obtained by a privacy group shows states are pressured to limit public and congressional oversight of data-sharing with the FBI.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read

WASHINGTON -- The FBI is pressuring states to become more secretive and limit even routine oversight of the bureau's data-sharing arrangements with local police, a new document shows.

A memorandum of understanding written by the FBI and signed by the state of Virginia in February 2008 aims to curb congressional and press oversight of a joint venture called a Fusion Center. Here's more on Fusion Centers.

The memorandum, obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and released on Friday, says that any "disclosure" to Congress of information shared with the Fusion Center can happen only "after consultation with the FBI." It also says that requests from media organizations even for non-classified material made under Virginia's open government laws will be referred to the FBI and then strongly opposed.

It also indicates that the FBI is responsible for a Virginia state bill called HB1007 -- introduced two days after the FBI signed the memorandum on January 6 -- that would exempt the Fusion Center from open government laws.

That bill is worrisome. It rewrites open government laws to say that even non-classified statistics about the total number of investigations targeting "an individual who or organization which is reasonably suspected of involvement in criminal activity" will be exempt from disclosure to news organizations and the public.

Nobody wants truly confidential or classified information to be disclosed (except, perhaps, to the historians of the next generation). But the Virginia proposal goes too far, and exempts even reports and statistics that could show overzealous surveillance and other possible misbehavior by Fusion Center staff.

In reality, there's no need to amend Virginia's open government law; it already includes a slew of can't-disclose-these exemptions including "public safety" records, anti-terrorist plans, and reports given to "state and local law enforcement agencies."

This hasn't stopped police from misrepresenting what's going on. "Federal agencies aren't going to share with us classified information if they think we're going to share that information," Capt. Tom Martin, commander of the Virginia State Police Criminal Intelligence Division and the administrative head of the Fusion Center, told the Virginian-Pilot. "We're going to protect it."

If Martin and the other Fusion Center honchos want a narrow state law reiterating that classified information can't be disclosed, perhaps it makes sense to enact one. But that's a far cry from HB1007's broad exceptions, and not an argument that the currently-proposed law is either wise or necessary.