The Department of Justice has quietly released the final report on a two-year pilot program on “Suspicious Activity Reporting.” This program, the latest development of the domestic security overhaul following September 11, 2001 is cause for alarm, according to a recently published study Platform for Prejudice, by Political Research Associates (PRA). The study details how the Suspicious Activity Program involves enlisting law enforcement as intelligence officers by training police to report 1st Amendment protected activitieslike photography, taking notes, making diagrams, and “espousing extremist views.”
The initiative is set to be operational nationwide in all 72 Fusion Center sites by September 2012. It will soon expand to 10 new sites in Alabama, Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, along with Dallas, Kansas City, and Savannah, announced program director Tom O’Reilly at a February 2010 conference.
The government’s official evaluation of the pilot program echoes the unease about effectiveness and legality raised in PRA’s Platform for Prejudice. According to the government’s report on the project, both quantitative and qualitative performance metrics for Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) data are lacking. According to the government report, “the majority of sites were unable to calculate the number of arrests and investigations resulting from SAR data.”
Only two sites out of the twelve reported the number of investigations that led to arrests or convictions in cases involving SAR reports with a supposed nexus to terrorism or other criminal activity. Plus, the legality of the program is difficult to ascertain where only four sites “completed the activities necessary to share SAR data with other sites and had their analysts regularly perform searches.”
“Based on this sparse information, how could the federal government possibly conclude that this program is ready to come to your town? What good is an “Evaluation Environment” that doesn’t evaluate? It’s time for Congress to exercise its oversight function to protect civil liberties and ensure that resources and tax dollars are not being wasted,” said PRA Civil Liberties Project Director Thomas Cincotta in response to the government’s assessment.
The police department of one of the twelve original program sites, made its apprehension clear. In assessing the SAR pilot program, the Boston Police Department suggests PRA’s concerns are warranted: “there seemed to be a disparate amount of SARs being entered between the agencies. B[oston] P[olice] D[epartment] wants to avoid the entry of information into the [information sharing environment] Shared Spaces that is not of value and prevent large volumes of information being ‘dumped’ into the system.”
Questions still linger regarding the lawfulness of the program. In Platform for Prejudice, PRA challenges the legality of this new information-sharing program because it lowers the threshold for domestic intelligence collection.
PRA’s report documents numerous incidents where law-abiding people of “Middle Eastern appearance” received intimidating visits from cops or FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force agents simply because they videotaped a tourist attraction, rented a boat without fishing gear, engaged in religious practice, or took a picture with a friend at an airport. In one instance, Duane Kerzic was detained because he took pictures of trains at New York’s Penn Station. It turns out he was participating in Amtrak’s annual photography contest. The SAR Initiative threatens to clog intelligence pipelines with junk data derived from racial, ethnic, religious, and ideological bias.
“When taking photographs of landmark structures is defined as suspicious activity, police must decide whom to report among the thousands of people snapping pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge. Unsurprisingly, evidence indicates they are relying on the dominant racial and ethnic stereotypes about who might be a terrorist. This not only violates Constitutional protections, but erodes mutual trust and makes communities less safe,” said PRA Executive Director Tarso Luís Ramos.
Platform for Prejudice makes eleven recommendations to policy makers and social justice activists, including that Congress should hold hearings to evaluate the lawfulness and effectiveness of Suspicious Activity Reporting and order reforms prior to nationwide implementation. PRA’s study examines how Suspicious Activity Reporting programs and the Fusion Centers they operate from operate largely without public oversight and accountability.
“Now is the time for an independent review, before the program is institutionalized at more and more Fusion Centers. There has been too much talk of transparency, and not enough sunlight and public accountability,” said Cincotta.
The Final Report issued by the Bureau of Justice Assistance can now be found at the NSI Program Management Office website.
News about the nationwide implementation of the SAR program can be found at:
- “U.S. to Offer Suspicious Activity Report Training Nationwide” (March 3, 2010)
- “The Rights Hands” (Feb. 24, 2010)
- Corey McKenna, “Program Strengthens Suspicious Activity Reporting to Combat Terrorism,” Emergency Management (April 5, 2010)