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The War on Terror Has Not Waned. It’s Used Against Black and Brown Communities.

A network of 80 surveillance-oriented “fusion centers” around the U.S. are eroding our privacy and civil rights.

Police prepare as protestors gather at Barclays Center Arena to protest the New York Police Department response to the killing of Jordan Neely, in Brooklyn, New York on May 4, 2023.

Even though the September 11 attacks transpired more than 20 years ago, their impact on the United States and its security practices endures. As a scholar who investigates both domestic and global surveillance, I have come across skeptics who think that the global “war on terror” may be waning.

For example, some argue that the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan indicates that the global war on terror is no longer a priority. But this argument ignores the expansive surveillance apparatuses that have been put into place both globally and domestically, as a result of the global war on terror. While rhetoric around the war on terror may wax and wane with the political winds of a given moment, the impact that 9/11 has had on domestic policing has been hidden from the public. Counterterrorism policies that are rooted in racism and initially deployed to target Arab and Muslim populations have been expanded to surveil and police other racialized groups.

The Center for Security, Race, and Rights (CSRR) at Rutgers University, where I am a faculty affiliate, recently released a report on fusion centers. The general public is largely unaware of the existence of fusion centers, much less the details of their operations. This is by design as the government has argued that state secrets trump transparency when it comes to national security. Fusion centers were created after 9/11 in an effort to coordinate information sharing across various local, state and federal agencies in an attempt to thwart terror attacks. Despite that mission statement, fusion centers are going completely beyond their ostensible mandate, surveilling and policing Black and Brown communities with no credible links to organizations that the government has labeled “terrorist.”

According to the report, the fusion center in New Jersey, known as the Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (ROIC), has been using its funds to support “broken windows policing.” The rationale behind this policing approach is based on “broken windows theory” whereby policing is justified in neighborhoods that have abandoned buildings and graffiti, because those signifiers allegedly suggest a potential for criminal activity. But criminal legal scholars have debunked this theory, noting that the appearances of a neighborhood do not cause violence. Furthermore, the theory itself ignores the structural and racial underpinnings of neglected neighborhoods.

The CSRR report specifically reveals how the ROIC conducts broken windows policing by surveilling and policing low-level crimes, like parole violations and smaller drug offences. It also highlights how resources are used to prosecute low-level offenses in Camden, New Jersey, where ROIC intelligence led to police issuing a fine to a bicyclist for not having a bell on their bike. In a another egregious example, an ROIC report included an incident where someone was suspected of terrorism because they physically altered a bus. ROIC analysts claimed the driver changed the bus in order to convert it into an explosive device that would be used to commit an act of terror. In reality the driver did it to avoid paying taxes on fuel.

The Brennan Center for Justice also issued a report highlighting the abuses of these centers. In addition to being used to target people for drug crimes and surveilling Black and Brown communities, they uncovered that these centers can be used against political activists. An Austin fusion center surveilled social media posts during movement for Black lives protests in 2020, while a Maine fusion center disseminated online conspiracy theories about the potential for violence at Black Lives Matter protests to local police departments.

Furthermore, some centers promoted Department of Homeland Security and FBI warnings about abortion rights activists, framing them as potential “abortion-related violent extremists.” As abortion becomes illegal in states across the country, fusion centers stand to be used to target women and marginalized people seeking recently criminalized reproductive services.

Another major concern surrounding these centers is the intense secrecy that guards their activity. CSRR submitted dozens of state-level open records requests, which were either ignored or denied. The CSRR team found that there is virtually no oversight or accountability over these centers, enabling them to commit rampant abuses of privacy. The New Jersey ROIC is led by a former CIA agent, raising suspicions about the use of international intelligence gathering to surveil citizens domestically.

To date there are 80 fusion centers around the country. The CSRR report highlights the mission creep of these fusion centers with the hope of educating the public and policymakers about the impact of these counterterrorism policies on racialized groups, beyond just Muslims. The Muslim Justice League has brought attention to the Boston fusion center, for instance, which collected personal information via surveillance technologies like security cameras and corporate databases. According to the ACLU Massachusetts, city, state and federal lawmakers have approved around $7 million budget for Boston fusion center over the last few years. In Maine, George Loder, a retired police detective, made complaints about one of these centers for illegally collecting information about individuals who had not committed any criminal activity. Loder won a $300,000 lawsuit against his former employers for retaliation for blowing the whistle on these practices. In California, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, organized protests in cities across the United States to close and defund fusion centers. And while there is more awareness about these fusion centers and their abuses, states like Maine refuse to close them.

What is clear is that surveillance and security practices have been put into place with significant funding and very little oversight in the name of preventing terrorism. At a time when public institutions like schools and health services are in desperate need of resources, spending on secretive policing and surveillance should inspire public outrage. With these programs left unchecked, our civil rights, privacy and well-being are holding on by a thread.

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