Suspicious Activity Reporting Invites Racial Profiling, Erodes Civil Liberties, and Undermines Security

About Eric Ethington

Eric Ethington is PRA's Communications Director, and has been specializing in political messaging, communications strategy, and public relations for more than a decade. Originally from Salt Lake City, he also has a background in electoral politics and his writing, advocacy work, and research have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, the New York Times, The Telegraph, and The Public Eye magazine. He has also worked as a radio host, pundit, blogger, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @EricEthington

Platform for Prejudice Cover

By Thomas R. Cincotta:

“The intelligence lapses that failed to prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks prompted an overhaul of U.S. domestic and foreign intelligence systems, including the creation of an expansive new domestic security infrastructure. A key part of this new infrastructure is the Suspicious Activity Reporting initiative, a framework that guides, orchestrates, and connects the federal government’s nationwide “Information Sharing Environment.” In this initiative, we see the seeds for a possible repeat of past intelligence abuses, particularly with the weakening of civil liberties safeguards and mobilization of police as intelligence officers.

The Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR Initiative) is a useful focus for understanding how the new domestic security infrastructure works because it feeds and links together components of the system, reaching into the populace and forming an intelligence pipeline between the “fusion centers” charged with managing the program and various other agencies. We have found that these new fusion centers – ostensibly designed to counter terrorism – seem to devote most resources and attention to solving common crimes rather than protecting national security. If it is the case that Fusion Centers perform a primarily policing function, rather than counter-terrorism, the public should weigh whether their excessive secrecy and surveillance powers are justified on that basis.

In an attempt to peer inside these secretive agencies and contribute to public knowledge about the extensive domestic security infrastructure, Political Research Associates launched an investigation into how the SAR Initiative works. Our questions included SAR’s role in the larger domestic security apparatus, the rules under which it functions, and how its practices affect those individuals and communities most singled out for suspicion of terrorism. This report includes data from our investigations in Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami, as well as a comprehensive analysis of federal and local policies and reports. Based on our Los Angeles investigation, the report contains a thorough case study of the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center.

The report is broken up into four sections, which contextualize and explain the SAR Initiative, as well as elucidate the potential hazards of the program:

In Section 1 of this report, we describe the shape and identify key components of the domestic security infrastructure. Although many levels of government are involved in Suspicious Activity Reporting (such as the National Security Agency, Coast Guard, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and private sector advisory councils), this report focuses on fusion centers and state and local police departments.

In Section 2, we explain the origins of the national Suspicious Activities Reporting (SAR) Initiative and analyze faulty assumptions upon which it is based. We call attention to an aggressive new form of policing called “Intelligence-Led Policing” whose pre-emptive approach violates core American values.

In Section 3, we explore how the SAR Initiative becomes a platform for several types of prejudice. We document the pattern of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling evident in this approach to intelligence gathering. We also explore political biases that manifest themselves in Suspicious Activities Reporting criteria and intelligence analysis. Further, we examine how the SAR Initiative lowers the threshold for government data collection in ways that fuel both profiling and political policing, and violate long-standing civil liberties protections. Lastly, in Section 4, we use a case study of the fusion center based in Norwalk, California, the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, to identify how domestic intelligence collection and sharing jeopardizes civil liberties. Los Angeles’ Fusion Center spearheaded the national SAR Initiative, uses extremely broad criteria for so-called “suspicious” activity, and vigorously encourages the public to report suspicious activities through its controversial iWatch program.

However, as with any investigation of intelligence agencies, the excessive secrecy of the system posed many challenges. Several agencies and departments failed to make their policies available online and to respond to our formal requests for interviews or documents.

I and my colleagues at Political Research Associates believe the United States faces two real and serious threats from terrorists: the first from terrorist acts themselves, which have the demonstrated capacity to cause mass casualties, severe economic damage, and social dislocation; and the second from the possibility that disproportionate and inappropriate responses will do more damage to the fabric of society than that inflicted directly by terrorists themselves. This report strongly suggests that gathering data on lawful activity through Suspicious Activity Reporting amounts to this second kind of harm: the self-inflicted wound. Simply put, the SAR program does more damage to our communities than it does to address real and continuing threats of terrorism.”

Read the full report “Platform for Prejudice” here.