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Romney's spy center

HOMELAND SECURITY experts from around the nation are gathering in Boston today to compare notes and to hear from members of the public about data privacy concerns and homeland security. At the top of their agenda should be Mitt Romney's so-called Fusion Center, which promises to ''fuse" intelligence from state, local, and federal sources into a single database.

What's wrong with this idea?

It could be that it provides one-stop shopping for identity theft. Or that it diverts millions from community policing, while Boston struggles with a rising homicide rate and 239 fewer cops on the beat than six years ago.

Or maybe that history and the 9/11 Commission showed that gathering piles of data don't equal sound law enforcement.

No, the biggest problem with the Commonwealth Fusion Center is that Romney's system has no accountability, at a time the feds are abusing their power by spying on progressive US activists.

Accountability is already a problem with the FBI-led Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Forces, which deputize local police to do the work of the FBI. Inaugurated in 1996, four years after the first World Trade Center bombing, there are now more than 100 task forces around the country, including one here in Massachusetts. Some, like the one in Fresno, Calif., have already been caught spying on antiwar activists.

In fact, a now-forgotten New York Times exposé revealed that the FBI sent a memo to the task forces just before the big antiwar marches of 2003 detailing how to use antiterrorism tactics to spy on home-grown activists.

There are so few checks on the task forces that in April, Portland, Ore., became the first municipality to opt out of one. Mayor Tom Potter said there just wasn't enough civilian oversight for him to guarantee that police officers weren't investigating people for their religious or political ties. In fact, the task force would not discuss intelligence gathered by local officers with the city's mayor!

Meanwhile, Boston's police chief proudly announced the creation of neighborhood watch groups and the placement of 24/7 surveillance cameras around the city. Will the information generated through increased surveillance by task forces, neighborhood watch groups, and cameras be channeled to the Fusion Center at Framingham?

That's a secret. While the government is increasing its power to watch you, it is diminishing your power to watch the government.

Here's another mystery. What accountability is there when law enforcement works with private sector data mining companies, as it is doing with LocatePLUS in Beverly? LocatePLUS says it has information on 98 percent of the American population. How can we be sure that the Fusion Center is not streaming in junk information from private services?

We know that Romney thinks such private services enhance law enforcement's own spy machines. As chairman of Homeland Security's Advisory Council on Intelligence and Information Sharing, Romney last December called for a nationwide network of fusion centers fed by government agencies and big business tipsters, as well as EMS drivers and other private citizens in a position to spy on their neighbors.

He mimics the worst of former Attorney General John Ashcroft's notorious Terrorist Information and Prevention System proposal to get neighbors to spy on one another, and Admiral John Poindexter's discredited Total Information Awareness program, which promised to create a computerized dossier on every American. The Bush administration scrapped them both in the face of public opposition, but the Fusion Center brings them back to life.

Accountability and civilian oversight lies at the heart of our democracy. In the 1970s, a Senate committee led by Senator Frank Church investigated the FBI's secret ''vigilante operation" against dissent called COINTELPRO. It concluded it was ''aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence."

Public outcry forced the government to adopt the Levy Guidelines, safeguards gradually repealed since the Reagan administration.

The Fusion Centers, with their secret partnerships with the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Forces, are tailor-made for reviving government abuses of our vital First Amendment rights to free speech and association, and of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search. It wastes resources and, by overwhelming the system with useless information, does not make us safer.

The State House should assert its democratic responsibility to oversee and audit this dangerous new institution or, better still, pull the plug on it before it's too late.

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Chip Berlet is senior analyst with Political Research Associates.

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