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As lawmakers consider a bill to establish the existing West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center in state code, civil liberty advocates are calling on the Legislature to use this as an opportunity to add more privacy and civil liberty protections for West Virginians.
The West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center dates back to 2008, when then-Gov. Joe Manchin signed an executive order authorizing a group to gather and evaluate information on threats of terrorist activity for state and federal agencies, most prominently the Department of Homeland Security.
Since then, the group has existed through executive orders from the governor’s office. By proposing the center to be added to state law through House Bill 4176, some lawmakers have said at previous committee meetings they hope the West Virginia Fusion center will operate under more oversight.
Nationally, fusion centers were established by an executive order from President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to investigate potential terroristic threats. Today, fusion centers exist in all 50 states.
Cabinet Secretary Jeff Sandy from the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS) spoke highly of fusion centers at a public hearing for House Bill 4176 Thursday morning, hosted by the House Judiciary Committee. Delegates were scheduled to hear and vote on whether to pass the bill to the full House Thursday afternoon after 3 p.m.
DMAPS currently oversees the state fusion center.
“That executive order forming the fusion centers across our country has saved American lives,” Sandy said. “Why? Is it because of the word ‘fusion center’? It is not. It is because fusion centers brought people together.”
Since then, Director Joseph Cohen of the American Civil Liberties Union in West Virginia said the center’s mission has morphed from monitoring terrorist threats to investigating all kinds of crime.
Cohen also attended the public hearing on Thursday. He argued that the Legislature should study the proposal rather than rush into passing a bill that would change state code.
“Slow down, have a real opportunity to bring in the experts on this stuff. If we’re going to have a fusion center, let’s do it right,” Cohen said at the public hearing.
Cohen cited a study in 2012 from a U.S. Senate subcommittee on investigations in which bipartisan group of lawmakers learned fusion centers weren’t yielding significant information for counterterrorism efforts.
After 13 months of reviewing reports from fusion centers that were submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2010, senators said they “could identify no reporting which uncovered a terrorist threat, nor could it identify a contribution such fusion center reporting made to disrupt an active terrorist plot.”
Robert Cornelius, a recently ousted Wood County Republican Chair, said Thursday he believes the West Virginia Fusion Center is being used to spy on political opponents, himself included.
“I’m a longtime critic of our current governor,” Cornelius told delegates at the public hearing. “As chairman of the Wood County Republican Committee, our group voted unanimously to support his impeachment, of the governor, in June of 2018, citing his refusal to attend work.”
Cornelius said he learned a month after that decision that there were pictures of himself at a security guard shack for the Columbia Gas building in Kanawha City, with a notice to call the fusion center if guards recognized him on the property.
This is what prompted Cornelius to post on Twitter in 2019 about the fusion center. Cornelius said in July he received a file of information regarding himself collected by the fusion center. He said his wife, who works in the state Capitol, was handed the information by the governor’s general counsel, Brian Abraham, even though Cornelius insisted the governor’s office had his contact information.
“There’s a greater issue with internet and electronic surveillance by the current executive,” Cornelius said, referring to the governor. “Of his employees, state employees and citizens more generally. Beyond concerns with fusion [centers], I would encourage those interested in our civil rights to examine the current and former roles of employees, the governor’s senior staff, and the scope of duties and activities.”
Fusion center officials disputed claims from Cornelius Thursday morning. That included DMAPS Cabinet Secretary Sandy and his deputy secretary Thom Kirk, who has experience direction the West Virginia fusion center.
“One of the things that we do at the fusion center is, any information that comes in there is vetted, to see whether it’s factual or not,” Kirk said. “I can tell you that if that is what Mr. Cornelius said, that’s false. I can bet that right now. He, to my knowledge, has never been investigated by the West Virginia Intelligence Fusion Center.”
Earlier this year, the governor requested an additional $1.9 million from the Legislature to fund a Narcotics Intelligence unit that would operate under the state fusion center, as well.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.