On Juneteenth 2020, hacktivists using the Anonymous moniker released 269 gigabytes worth of emails, audio, video, and documents from law enforcement agencies and fusion centers in the U.S. (Fusion centers were established by the post-9/11 PATRIOT Act to facilitate information gathering sharing between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.) In the wake of the #BlueLeaks disclosures, researchers on social media have pointed out that many fusion centers have published far-right conspiracy theories in their reports.
One such example we found is the debunked rumor, sourced from a known far-right outlet and boosted by Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, that participants in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) were “checking identification at barricades before entering the zone” and that “citizens and businesses [were] asked to pay a fee to operate within this area”. This rumor was reported as true in a report compiled by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.
We wondered if there were similar cases of far-right bias and disinformation in fusion centers in our state, so we reviewed public records requests to find out.
Bringing Everything InFOCUS
The Washington State Fusion Center publishes a situational awareness report called Information From Online Communities and Unclassified Sources (InFOCUS). The fusion center disseminates this report to various local and state law enforcement entities including the Seattle Police Department. Each issue contains links to articles, each accompanied by an excerpt pulled from that article. We found several copies of InFOCUS that were obtained via public records request, sorted by domain.
As we clicked through the links, we quickly noticed articles from well-known far-right and conspiracy websites such as The Daily Caller, Newsmax, even InfoWars.
SPLC Targeting Army Bases?
An issue of InFOCUS dated September 1, 2017 links to an article from the Daily Caller, a news source with well-documented ties to white nationalism, titled “SPLC Says Army Bases Are Confederate Monuments That Need To Come Down”.
The article refers to this statement released by the Southern Poverty Law Center calling for Confederate statues to be taken down given their “potential to unleash more turmoil and bloodshed”. The statement was published on August 15, 2017, three days after the fatal car attack by a white supremacist that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. In context, it’s clear what “turmoil and bloodshed” refers to. But the Daily Caller twists these words to imply that SPLC is issuing veiled threats at army bases.
Additionally, an issue of InFOCUS from the two days earlier included an article blaming the violence on “emotional and antagonistic participants”, rather than, say, a man who espoused Nazi ideology driving his car into protesters.
It’s disturbing to see law enforcement using such plainly inflammatory and untrue information for situational awareness, but it follows a broader trend in law enforcement. The FBI first used the term “black identity extremist” in an intelligence assessment released August 3, 2017 and only abandoned it in July 2019, after many pointed out parallels to the FBI’s illegal COINTELPRO program which targeted the civil rights movement. In August 2017, the California State Terror Threat Assessment Center fusion center classified groups such as Black Lives Matter protesting an event with speakers affiliated with the alt-right movement as “known hate groups”.
As we continued digging, things got weirder. A Newsmax article titled “Report: Released JFK Docs Reveal Oswald’s ‘KGB Handler’” was linked from an issue of InFOCUS from April 27, 2018.
This theory that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by the Russian KGB is a well-known right-wing conspiracy theory that has been spread by groups such as the notoriously racist and anti-communist John Birch Society, whose ad in the December 15, 1963 issue of the New York Times is shown below. The implication of this conspiracy theory is to blame the presidential assassination on the Soviet Union and, in turn, left-wing communism.
Setting aside the bizarreness of the conspiracy theory, there is no actionable intelligence in including this article in InFOCUS. So why include it if your intention is raising situational awareness?
No One is Illegal
While scouring through the copies of InFOCUS, we found that many headlines used the word “illegals” to refer to undocumented immigrants. “Illegal” is a politically loaded, racialized term used to dehumanize and reduce the identity of people on the basis of their (lack of) citizenship documentation.
Digging deeper into these headlines, we found that, of the seven times InFOCUS used “illegal” in its headline to refer to undocumented immigrants, three articles had originally used the word “undocumented” in their original headline. We found no instances where InFOCUS headlines used the term “undocumented”.
This means that the writers of InFOCUS routinely and purposely editorialized to use a politically charged word to describe subjects of law enforcement.
Spreading a narrative built on far right propaganda and misinformation has real-world consequences. Documents from the #BlueLeaks hack show how law enforcement agencies and fusion centers exacerbated the anxieties of Minnesota police with similar unproven rumors, leading them to aggressively attack protesters with tear gas and less-lethal munitions. Similar stories have already come out after Charlottesville and out of states like California, Nevada, and Kentucky, and we foresee more findings in other states.
We contend that fusion centers exist to further infuse far right propaganda and ideology into the already racist and misogyny culture of police. By parroting ridiculous allegations of SPLC orchestrating attacks on army bases, anti-communist conspiracy theories, and by using explicitly politicized language like “illegals”, fusion centers are not neutral propagators of information; they are actively crafting a right-wing policing narrative.
We have seen many examples in the recent history of how the narrative promoted by the Washington State Fusion Center is embodied in the culture of Washington law enforcement agencies. We saw a sheriff’s office issue a half-hearted apology for sharing an “All Lives Splatter” meme the month after Charlottesville, making light of car attacks on protesters. We saw a police sergeant demoted for stalking a man who cursed at him to his workplace, jokingly calling it “community policing” as he sat outside. We saw an officer fired after being investigated by the Secret Service for making threats against political figures on social media. We saw an officer fired for physically abusing his ex-girlfriend and routinely making racist and sexist remarks about his coworkers. None of these incidents were brought to light by other officers, and it’s likely that there are many more that have not been exposed behind the blue wall of silence.
But why would they be? These behaviors are all in line with the culture reinforced by official intelligence updates from fusion centers.
This is not a problem of individual police officers. This is a system and culture that promotes, protects, and upholds these behaviors. These systems cannot be reformed. They are built to uphold and normalize abuse of power. The only option is abolition.