A recent CSRR report reveals extensive government surveillance and intelligence gathering, with little to no accountability.
It sounds like the makings of a conspiracy theory: the idea that we are under surveillance by covert, government-funded centers tasked with gathering secret intelligence on residents. But according to a recent report from Rutgers Law School’s Center for Security, Race and Rights (CSRR), not only do these centers exist but, worse yet, there is little to no oversight or accountability in how their extensive data is collected, used, and shared. The result is a practically unchecked intelligence gathering program, an assault on privacy, and a gradual erosion of civil liberties—especially in communities of color. All of this, as well as suggestions for improved oversight, is in CSRR’s new report titled “Shining a Light on New Jersey’s Secret State Intelligence System.”
How Did We Get Here?
To improve information sharing between state and federal agencies, and prevent future terrorist attacks, the 9/11 Commission established state-based intelligence outposts called fusion centers. Each state has one, and some larger states like Texas and California have several. Right here in New Jersey, ours is called the Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC).
For the past 20 years, the ROIC and other fusion centers have transformed into comprehensive, covert intelligence hubs for federal, state, and local law enforcement, collecting data on residents with very minimal if any links to actual, concrete terrorist threats.
“There is insufficient information about the function of fusion centers in general, how they gather their info, with whom they share it, and whether they have a legal basis for doing so—if the information is accurate in the first place,” says Sahar Aziz, CSRR director. “This entire process is clothed in secrecy and relies purely on self-regulation. Those two characteristics together tend to become a recipe for the abuse of authority.”
To understand more about New Jersey’s own ROIC, CSRR conducted a year-long investigation. Here’s what they found.
1. Little to No Transparency or Accountability
The ROIC operates outside the checks and balances of state law enforcement, and there is no internal mechanism in place to sound the alarm in case of unconstitutional intelligence-gathering. Subsequently, New Jersey residents have no way of knowing if this happens in our state. During CSRR’s investigation, countless agencies stonewalled questions of vast public importance and revealed the extent to which the ROIC will go to maintain a wall of secrecy.
2. Unchecked Discretion
Fusion centers apply intelligence-led policing methods to their work with law enforcement, meaning that state and local police can gather volumes of information on any person within US borders, essentially circumventing probable cause requirements. The ROIC is one of the largest fusion centers in the US, with about 100 staff members and significant resources at its disposal but has yet to prove how many terrorist plots it has helped foil or how it ensures that New Jersey residents’ civil liberties are protected against unwanted surveillance.
3. Facilitation of Mass Incarceration of Minority Communities
CSRR’s report revealed that, in Camden, collaboration between the ROIC and local police has led to well over 150 documented surveillance devices that watch, listen, and scan residents at all hours of the day. And while there hasn’t been any concrete evidence that the ROIC has thwarted terrorism, its actions have supported mass warrant sweeps for people with outstanding bench warrants or parole violations, leading to mass arrests and incarcerations of low level, almost exclusively Black and Brown offenders engaging in non-terrorist, non-violent acts.
The report recommends oversight in various forms, including the appointment of a public advocate, the passing of state legislation supporting transparency and accountability for any possible legal violations, and the establishment of a people’s audit of the fusion center, which would gather multiple civil organizations at the state and local level to demand more information about how funds are allocated in the intelligence community and whether intelligence services are actually preventing the crimes they claim to stop.
“An audit like this would incentivize adherence to the law and disincentivize abuses of power,” Aziz says. “Our report arms government officials and other stakeholders with information and analysis so they can inquire more about what these taxpayer-funded entities are doing outside of the public eye and, ideally, impose meaningful oversight.”