Texas is home to eight secretive surveillance centers, supported jointly by federal, state and local law enforcement departments. The Texas Department of Public Safety helps to oversee them.
They’re called fusion centers because they fuse together some of the efforts of various police agencies. Dallas police host one of the centers. Fort Worth police host another, and there’s also one in McKinney at the Collin County Justice Center. That gives North Texas three of the state’s eight centers.
They were started in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with the goal of enabling federal, state and local police to better share intelligence.
Recently, a couple of events have moved fusion centers into the spotlight.
The first was the somewhat surprising (to me) testimony of DPS Director Steven McCraw before a legislative committee about known online forums that foster hate speech.
McCraw explained that “there’s no personnel that I’m aware of that were monitoring the types of forums that we’ve been talking about. That did not exist. The proactive part is now just beginning.”
Just beginning? The Watchdog was under the apparently mistaken impression that the eight fusion centers were already monitoring those kinds of online forums. Not necessarily so.
The second event came in the form of an executive order issued this year by Gov. Greg Abbott after several Texas mass shootings.
The order stated that his office and DPS would “use all available resources to increase staff at all fusion centers in Texas for the purpose of better collecting and responding to Suspicious Activity Reports, and better monitoring and analyzing social media and other online forums, for potential threats.”
Again. We weren’t already doing this?
To help me prepare questions for DPS, I asked Dallas Morning News Research Editor Erin Sood to do a deep dive of public records to learn what the centers have been up to. She studied annual reports, news stories and other published materials.
The centers are supported, often with grants and training, by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“They have full support of DHS and have complete surveillance operations with video, audio, digital,” Erin told me. (I previously reported how the fusion centers are hooked up to a video system that monitors Texas landmarks for suspicious activities.)
Erin continued, “They pull information from private and public databases. They also claim that they adhere to individual privacy rights, federal and state civil rights laws and constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties throughout the intelligence process.”
She added, “From my reading, there appears to be very little information to support that they have any real impact on preventing crime or other threats.
“These agencies operate in very vague terms and claim information-sharing assistance in the aftermath of an event, instead of gaining the foresight necessary to neutralize criminal activities before they happen, which is counterproductive to their directives and likely very expensive.”
With that background, I prepared my questions for DPS to learn more about this expanding program. But I wasn’t hopeful for a response. Two other media outlets covering this subject recently were ghosted by DPS. No response given.
To DPS, I made the case that “your participation in this public debate is vital. Please stop sitting it out. ... I implore you to come out of the shadows on this important subject of Texans’ safety and security, balancing it with transparency, civil liberties and privacy.”
Guess what? It worked.
DPS answered most of my questions. (Thank you!)
To my question about what they’ve been doing these past years if they are just now starting to monitor certain areas, DPS answered: “It’s true that the Texas Fusion Center [in Austin] previously did not assign intelligence professionals to monitor the World Wide Web looking for threat-to-life indicators.” The focus was on individuals and groups under criminal suspicion.
Now, the statement says, DPS “has assigned more of its analytical resources to monitoring networks and groups that encourage the use of violence. What DPS has not, nor will do, is monitor protected speech, which can include hate-based forums.”
“All law enforcement authorities do not have the ability to search through the enormous amount of data on the World Wide Web,” it adds.
Director McCraw has repeatedly called on social media companies to responsibly report threat tips to authorities. He did so again this past week at a legislative hearing.
In its answer, for the first time anywhere that we could find, DPS’ media office reeled off numbers. As to my question about arrests made, I was told that “the intelligence centers do not make arrests, although they do support investigations and operations resulting in arrests.”
As of last month, DPS says, the primary fusion center operating out of DPS headquarters in Austin, open since 2010, has processed 2,650 suspicious-activity reports. That center also provided officers “analytical support” on 39,681 occasions, produced 329 situation reports and an additional 175 “state intelligence assessments.”
In response to mass shootings, DPS has created a Domestic Terrorism Section within the Austin fusion center. The goal is to “proactively seek, assess and monitor domestic terrorism and other mass casualty threats.”
But how to do that without violating the privacy of innocents?
A decade ago, when fusion centers were coming online, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a warning that the centers had “ambiguous lines of authority, excessive secrecy, troubling private-sector and military participation.” The threat, it stated, for “the creation of a total surveillance society,” is real.
The report called for vigorous public oversight because “as fusion centers are positioned to learn more about the American public, authorities are moving to ensure that the public knows less and less about fusion centers.”
One good example
To be fair, Erin found one example of the system working perfectly.
KSAT.com reported in July that a man who threatened to shoot up a church was found and arrested in minutes.
The man posted a photo of himself on Facebook with an AK-47 and a pistol with this comment: “Sunday gunday!!! About to shoot up a church during the prayer service!!! Wish me luck!”
San Antonio’s fusion center alerted local police. The man was arrested as he was getting in his car.
And that’s how it’s supposed to work.