Suspicious Activity Reporting
A Window into the Domestic Security Infrastructure

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, government responded to perceived deficiencies in the nation’s defense system by re-configuring its domestic security apparatus and marshalling vast resources to implement counterterrorism policies.  This development coincided with a backlash against Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian populations, as well as increased deportations of immigrants of Latin American origin.  Law and policy makers conceptualized the development of the enterprise in structural terms: the establishment of a new “intelligence architecture,” building an “information sharing environment,” and mandating interagency collaboration at all levels of government.

The shape of this architecture is radically different than during previous national security scares with widescale abuses of civil liberties (i.e., Palmer Raids, Japanese internment, McCarthyism).  The informal and unstructured cooperation of the past has been replaced with interagency collaboration and information sharing through a complex and interconnected structure. 

Horizontal and vertical information systems and coordinating entities such as federal task forces, joint terrorism task forces, and intelligence fusion centers link many organizations in a web of data collection / sharing and coordinated enforcement efforts.  In December 2004, Congress established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to provide strategic management across sixteen intelligence agencies.  On the campus of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), founded in August 2004, CIA and FBI counterterrorism divisions interact.  Mechanisms for collaboration at the national level, such as the NCTC, ODNI, and National Joint Terrorism Task Force, are mirrored by multiple state and regional initiatives, such as 110 joint terrorism task forces (JTTFs).  Agencies at all levels of government and the private sector have roles in domestic security activities.  In short, the counterintelligence or counter-subversion apparatus is both complicated and immense.

Underlying the deployment of this vast infrastructure is a paradigm shift in the domestic security mandate and ideology.  The FBI has shifted its priority from law enforcement to counterterrorism and intelligence.  Together with the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau pushes local and state law enforcement to adopt the emerging discipline of intelligence-based policing, which calls for the collection and close analysis of a broad base of information to track, solve, and prevent crimes.  New guidelines for FBI investigations facilitate open-ended “threat assessments” and circumvent constraints that once curtailed the activities of local Red Squads.  An emphasis on preventing “homegrown terrorism” has led to renewed focus on “violent radicalization and extremism” as the root cause of terror, as seen most recently in warnings on right and leftwing extremism issued by Homeland Security.  Although the controversial “homegrown terrorism” bill, HR1955, did not make it out of committee, the ideas underlying that proposal appear to have taken hold among various Homeland Security analysts and in FBI circles.

Taking a cue from the government’s own emphasis on the structural reorganization of the domestic security apparatus, PRA’s latest report is part of an effort to map the overarching infrastructure of the domestic spying and counter-terrorism operations.  It charts the relationships among federal, local, state, and private groups.  Specifically, it draws attention to the role of Fusion Centers and questions whether these new secretive institutions play a constructive role in America’s counter-terrorism effort that is worth the risks in terms of civil liberties and financial costs.

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