Civil Liberties

Fusion Center Issues New Statement on Its Warning That Police Should Watch Out for Don't-Tread-on-Me Flags

Many unanswered questions remain about both the bulletin and the DHS-funded intelligence-sharing operation that produced it.


Today the Utah Statewide Information and Analysis Center, a "fusion center" partly funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, responded to the controversy over a bulletin it sent to law enforcement officers last week.

The bulletin, which was first covered here at Reason, had been distributed in anticipation of last Friday's funeral for LaVoy Finicum, the rancher killed during the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The document warned that "[c]aravans of individuals traveling to the funeral services may be comprised of one or more armed extremists," and it displayed several "visual indicators" that an officer might be dealing with "extremist and disaffected individuals." These images ranged from the Gadsden flag (a popular patriotic symbol featuring a rattlesnake and the slogan "Don't Tread on Me") to an altered version of the skull-and-lightning-bolt logo favored by fans of the Grateful Dead.

Today the fusion center issued this statement:

The Utah Statewide Information and Analysis Center released an officer safety bulletin on February 3, 2016, regarding events surrounding the funeral of LaVoy Finicum. The bulletin was intended to inform law enforcement officers of the funeral and potential safety concerns based on recent events in Oregon and Nevada.

The bulletin contains symbols that may or may not be espoused by criminal extremist individuals or groups. We understand that law-abiding citizens also espouse these symbols, and we acknowledge so in the bulletin. Public safety personnel are always expected to evaluate and utilize all information in the context of their training in Constitutional Law and rules of criminal procedure.

There was no intent to offend or single out individuals and groups who use these symbols for historical or legitimate purposes. We will attempt to articulate those distinctions clearer in the future.

A few follow-up questions come to mind:

1. Precisely how does the center intend to "attempt to articulate those distinctions clearer in the future"? It's true that the bulletin acknowledged that "law-abiding citizens also espouse [sic] these symbols," and we mentioned that fact in our story. It's just that the agency's acknowledgement consisted, in its entirety, of this poorly worded and perfunctory aside:

[T]hough some or parts of these symbols are representative of patriotic and American revolutionary themes[,] they are often associated with extremism[.]

There was no breakdown of which symbols had multiple meanings or what different contexts they might be expected to appear in. The information that was included was often extremely limited: The Gadsden flag, for example, was simply identified as an image "commonly displayed by sovereign citizen extremists." So: What exactly do they plan to change?

2. Does the agency plan to address any other criticisms? The Utah bulletin didn't just do a poor job of explaining what the symbols it included might mean, thus making it more likely that a driver might be mistaken for an "extremist." It also failed to discuss what a cop should do if he does come across a bona fide "extremist." As former FBI agent Mike German complained to me last week, "What will the officers know after reading this that they didn't before? Here all they know is to be afraid if they see a Gadsden flag, which could result in an unnecessarily hostile encounter that would increase the chances of violence. There's nothing here that would help them correctly identify someone who held these beliefs, understand what might trigger hostile reactions, or how to talk to them in a way that would defuse any unnecessary tension." The statement released today does not deal with these issues.

3. Is there a larger pattern here? It would be comforting to think this was just one poorly drafted document. But fusion centers across the country have a history of producing work with similar problems, including an infamous "strategic report" in Missouri that identified the Gadsden flag as "the most common symbol displayed by militia members and organizations." More broadly, a 2012 congressional investigation concluded that the centers' output was "oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens' civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism." According to the congressional investigators, nearly a third of these reports weren't even circulated after they were written—sometimes because they contained no useful information, sometimes because they "overstepped legal boundaries."

Four years later, is this Finicum bulletin typical of the Utah agency's work? Is it typical of fusion centers in general? Is any sort of review process underway?

These are among the issues I wanted to raise with the agency after I acquired its document last week, but at the time it didn't respond to my calls and emails. And today? Sgt. Todd Royce, the public affairs officer who sent me the statement, tells me "there will be no further comment on the report."