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Public hearing held on bill to cement intelligence center into state code

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Debate went back and forth on Thursday on a bill that would establish West Virginia Intelligence/Fusion Center into state code.

A public hearing in front of the House Committee on the Judiciary was Thursday morning on H.B. 4176, the West Virginia Intelligence/Fusion Center Act.

The center was established in West Virginia in 2008 by then Gov. Joe Manchin through an executive order in response to what happened to the U.S. during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Led prominently by the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS), the center is meant to study information on threats of terrorist activity for state and federal agencies.

Jeff Sandy, the Cabinet Secretary for DMAPS spoke in favor of the bill, citing his work on the first fusion center in the United States in 2001.  The first one was established through an executive order from President George W. Bush.

Jeff Sandy

Sandy said the fusion centers have saved lived.

“Why? Is it because of the words ‘fusion center?’ It is not,” Sandy said.

“It is because fusion centers brought people together. As our legislators saw on Friday, what we do is we obtain information and we get it to the appropriate parties.”

Those West Virginians that are voicing opposition toward the state’s current surveillance body said this could be an opportunity to add more protections for privacy.

Joseph Cohen with the state ACLU chapter cited a two-year U.S. Senate investigation into fusion centers in 2012 that said fusion centers often produce irrelevant and useless intelligence.

Cohen further said that the report found that local fusion centers often infringe on civil liberties.

Joseph Cohen

“The lack of public accountability is too often in the past allowed police intelligence operations to turn their focus away from suspected criminals and toward political activists, racial and religious minorities, immigrant communities and, as we just heard, political opponents,” Cohen said.

Cohen citing the argument heard from Rob Cornelius, the former chair of the Wood County Republican Committee.

Cornelius said during the hearing that the fusion center was investigating him because he was a critic of Governor Jim Justice.

Thom Kirk, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary for the DMAPS and current director of the fusion center said Cornelius was “false.”

Kirk went out to say the center is doing its job.

“The fusion center has been here for 12 years, it’s been nationally recognized numerous times by both governmental factions as well as civilian factions as far as helping out in certain situations,” he said.

Eli Baumwell, the Policy Director for the state ACLU who is an opponent to the bill, said the mission of the fusion center is poorly defined in the bill.

“In parts of the bill, it appears that we are targeting terrorism. In other parts it appears any criminal activity, any criminal activity could be enough to open a case on someone,” Baumwell said.

“I have no doubt that right now the fusion center is focused on worthy issues like terrorism, large scale drug and human trafficking. But without clearer parameters, missions do tend to creep.”

The bill states, “The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety shall operate the facility, as directed by the Governor and in collaboration among federal, state, and local agencies, as well as private sector entities, including, but not limited to, those with the primary purposes of homeland security, counter-terrorism, public safety, public protection, and critical infrastructure.”

Delegates were scheduled to hear and vote on whether to pass the bill to the full House Thursday afternoon but instead decided to place the bill on the foot of all legislation.

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