Bizarre police tip-offs offer glimpse into America's surveillance state

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 4:07am


Two men of Middle Eastern descent were reported buying pallets of water at a grocery store. A police sergeant reported concern about a doctor "who is very unfriendly". And photographers of all races and nationalities have been reported taking snapshots of US post offices, bridges, dams and other structures.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several other groups have released 1,800 "suspicious activity reports", saying they show the inner workings of a domestic surveillance programme that is sweeping up innocent Americans and forever placing their names in a counterterrorism database.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government created a multibillion-dollar information-sharing programme meant to put local, state and federal officials together to analyse intelligence at sites called fusion centres.

Instead, according to a Senate report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and now the ACLU, the programme has duplicated the work of other agencies and hasn't directly been responsible for any terror-related prosecutions.

According to the GAO, the government maintains 77 fusion centres throughout the country and their operations are funded by federal and local sources.

The ACLU obtained suspicious activity reports filed with a fusion centre in Sacramento, California, and more were submitted as part of a court case.

A report from Bakersfield, California, phoned in to a police officer by a "close personal friend", describes two men who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent buying water.

Another report shows a police sergeant in Lodi, California, "reporting on a suspicious individual in his neighbourhood". The sergeant, whose name was redacted, said he "has been long concerned about a residence in his neighbourhood occupied by a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly".

The fusion centre project was a target of a blistering Congressional report last year complaining too many innocent Americans engaging in routine and harmless behaviour had become ensnared in the programme.

"We want the administration to stop targeting racial and religious minorities," ACLU lawyer Linda Lye said in the wake of the revelations.