AP September 20, 2013, 11:50 AM
SAN FRANCISCO Two men of Middle Eastern descent were reported buying pallets of water at a grocery store. A police sergeant reported concern about a doctor “who is very unfriendly.” And photographers of all races and nationalities have been reported taking snapshots of post offices, bridges, dams and other structures.
The American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups released 1,800 “suspicious activity reports” Thursday, saying they show the inner-workings of a domestic surveillance program that is sweeping up innocent Americans and forever placing their names in a counterterrorism database.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government created a multibillion-dollar information-sharing program meant to put local, state and federal officials together to analyze intelligence at sites called fusion centers.
Instead, according to a Senate report, the Government Accountability Office and now the ACLU, the program has duplicated the work of other agencies, has appeared rudderless and hasn’t directly been responsible for any terror-related prosecutions. According to the GAO, the government maintains 77 fusion centers throughout the country and their operations are funded by federal and local sources.
The ACLU obtained about 1,700 suspicious activity reports filed with the Sacramento office through a California Public Record Acts request. Another 100 were submitted as part of a court case in Los Angeles filed by the ACLU on behalf of photographers who say they are being harassed by Southern California law officials.
The documents do not appear to show valuable counterterrorism intelligence.
A report from Bakersfield, phoned in to a police officer by a “close personal friend,” describes two men who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent stocking up on water.
Another report shows a Lodi police sergeant “reporting on a suspicious individual in his neighborhood.” The sergeant, whose name was redacted, said he “has been long concerned about a residence in his neighborhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly.”
A third report states, “An off-duty supervising dispatcher with Sacramento P.D. noticed a female subject taking pictures of the outside of the post office in Folsom on Riley Street this morning. The female departed as a passenger in a silver Mazda.”
The fusion center project was a target of a blistering congressional report last year complaining that too many innocent Americans engaging in routine and harmless behavior have become ensnared in the program.
The ACLU and others are calling on the Obama administration to make overhauls so that only activities with legitimate links to terrorism investigations are reported.
“We want the administration to stop targeting racial and religious minorities,” ACLU lawyer Linda Lye said.
A Senate report last year concluded that the program has improperly collected information and produced little valuable intelligence on terrorism. The report suggested the program’s intent ballooned far beyond anyone’s ability to control.
What began as an attempt to put local, state and federal officials in the same room analyzing the same intelligence has instead cost huge amounts of money for data-mining software, flat screen televisions and, in Arizona, two fully equipped Chevrolet Tahoes that are used for commuting, investigators found.
The lengthy, bipartisan report was a scathing evaluation of what the Department of Homeland Security has held up as a crown jewel of its security efforts.
A Homeland Security spokesman countered that the program is “safe and effective.”
“In recent years, reporting of suspicious activity by the public has led to the arrest of multiple individuals planning mass casualty attacks,” Peter Boogaard said. “These programs are governed by robust privacy and civil rights and civil liberty protections.”
Homeland Security Department spokesman Matthew Chandler at the time the Senate report was released called it “out of date, inaccurate and misleading.”
He said it focused entirely on information being produced by fusion centers and didn’t consider the benefit to involved officials from receiving intelligence from the federal government.