Information on innocent Americans is still routinely collected by a nationwide counter-terrorism program that has received scrutiny in the past, according to a public records request.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other rights
organizations released 1,800 so-called suspicious activity
reports sent by various levels of law enforcement to two
California intelligence fusion centers. The centers, along with
70 others, were created after 9/11 in an effort to coordinate
The records obtained by the ACLU do not show evidence of valuable counter-terrorism intelligence, media outlets reported on Thursday.
"An off-duty supervising dispatcher with Sacramento PD noticed a female subject taking pictures of the outside of the post office in Folsom on Riley Street this morning," reads a suspicious activity report created June 4, 2010, as quoted by AP. "The female departed as a passenger in a silver Mazda."
NPR reported on other seemingly trivial filings, including two Middle Eastern men who bought US$1,700 in cigarettes, a Sikh who received a suspicious tattoo, and an inmate in Sacramento who had a drawing that read, "I Hate America."
The ACLU and other groups want the Obama administration to reexamine and remedy the program - officially named the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative - so that it focuses on terrorism investigations. It has requested that the program “stop targeting people engaging in constitutionally protected behavior like taking photographs."
"We want the administration to stop targeting racial and religious minorities," ACLU lawyer Linda Lye said.
It is unclear how long the suspicious activity reports stay in the program’s system. One photographer named in a California report told NPR that he was worried about what may happen to him if he tries to leave and re-enter the country.
"Am I going to have problems at the border?" Hal Bergman asked. "Are they going to take my laptop when I come back in the country? It makes me nervous that I'm not committing a crime, and the government is building records about what I'm up to."
Last year, the Senate released a report stating that the multi-billion dollar fusion center program had collected information on innocent people but had not produced much valuable counter-terrorism information.
The report concluded that the Department of Homeland Security program had exhibited waste and grown beyond its original intended scope.
A Homeland Security Department spokesman said at the time that the Senate report was "out of date, inaccurate and misleading” and insisted that local officials still benefited from the coordination.
In early 2013, the General Accountability Office (GAO) said the program could not track its own effectiveness. It added that 53 federal agencies are now integrated into the program. That number is in addition to the regional fusion centers where activity reports are collected.