More than a hunch

Why the ACLU worries about Montana’s fusion center

Halfway down a long non-descript hall of the Montana Department of Justice sits the Montana All Threat Intelligence Center (MATIC). Unless someone told you differently, you would barely note anything going on in this bland and otherwise unexciting room.

Funny, “noting” is pretty much the point of everything that goes on at MATIC, a federally funded “fusion center” where local, state, federal, and military sources send information concerning investigations of everything from drug cartels to possible terrorist activity. In other words, it represents the heart of Montana’s anti-terrorism and criminal intelligence brain trust.

“The offices are closed because our analysts may have things related to cases up on the walls,” explains Mike Batista, director of the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, as he stands in the center of the room. “It’s a pretty normal place. Not much different than any other office.”

That’s mostly true, although most offices don’t have signs reading, “All persons entering this facility agree to searches of their personal effects and motor vehicles” hanging on the door.

MATIC is one of the United States’ 43 existing or planned fusion centers, according to an October U.S. Government Accountability Report. The ability of these facilities to compile data from so many sources in one centralized location has civil libertarians worried that the government could be treading on privacy rights.

In late December the American Civil Liberties Union released a report on fusion centers outlining concerns about personal privacy and urging more public scrutiny of the information the centers can access.

Batista, for his part, recites the standard line that only criminals need to fear the somewhat longer arm of the law.

“MATIC is really an expansion of what the [Montana] Department of Justice has had for numerous years, and that’s a criminal intelligence unit,” Batista says. “This is really a slight expansion of that unit, and a focus beyond traditional crimes, to also our involvement in anti-terrorism measures.”

Specifically, Batista says the eight agents of the unit gather data from criminal justice agencies that fits a loose category he calls “criminal predicate,” which he explains as information that’s “more than a hunch, but less than probable cause.”

According to the Government Accountability Office, MATIC opened nearly five years ago with the stated mission to “collect, store, analyze, and disseminate information on crimes, both real and suspected, to the law enforcement community and government officials concerning dangerous drugs, fraud, organized crime, terrorism and other criminal activity for the purposes of decision making, public safety, and proactive law enforcement.”

Such broad generalities worry the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We are not opposed to the government taking measures to keep us safer against terrorism, but there’s got to be something, some distinctions made, between the gathering of legitimate information, versus blank data mining,” says the Executive Director of ACLU of Montana, Scott Crichton. “As of now we don’t have any specifics about what these fusion centers are doing, and that remains a cause of concern.”

Because of the sensitive nature of the investigations and analyses, no one can know whether his or her name might be included in MATIC’s database. A Freedom of Information Act request would prove worthless because the files are not public records unless used during a trial, Batista says.

Considering the secrecy of data, coupled with the squishy definition of “criminal predicate,” it’s no wonder why the ACLU is worried.

“We are concerned that the federal government has used the rubric of terrorism to expand the government’s reach into other activities,” says Crichton. “It’s almost as though they are now hyphenating terrorism and criminal investigation as if they are common ground, and that’s been the problem since day one—since 9/11.”

But Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath says citizens needn’t worry about the limited data compiled by the government. “It’s restricted. It’s highly restricted. We have state and federal requirements on that, as well as departmental rules, that we follow,” he says.

Batista emphasizes that MATIC does not cast out random nets hoping to snare criminals. Instead the agents analyze data sent to them from police departments.

“They may arrest someone for methamphetamine, and then they will call us with that information, and they will ask us to see if we get a ‘hit’ with anything else in our files,” Batista says.

MATIC only looks into people when those requests come in, because spending time investigating average citizens would be a wasted effort, he says.

Defending the merits of the system, McGrath points out that MATIC led to the arrest of Devin Deming, a sex offender now serving life in prison without parole for sexual intercourse without consent, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated burglary.

Using MATIC, investigators in Miles City, Billings, and the FBI were able to create a “road map” of Deming’s crimes, alert local law enforcement agencies that he was a suspect, and eventually arrest him, McGrath says. Without the centralized database, the investigation could have taken much longer, he says.

Even if an innocent citizen comes to the attention of MATIC analysts, McGrath says the investigation would likely exonerate the subject and no harm would come.

While these statements may sound reassuring, it does nothing to ease the concerns of the ACLU.

“I want to take what they [the government] say at face value, but I’m skeptical,” Crichton says.

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