Revealed: anti-terror center helped police track environmental activists
Observers argue efforts by the Oregon Titan Fusion Center to disseminate information about protesters violates state law
By Will Parrish and Jason Wilson
A federally sponsored anti-terrorism fusion center in Oregon assisted a taskforce monitoring protest groups organizing against a fossil fuel infrastructure project in the state, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.
The Oregon Titan Fusion Center – part of a network set up to monitor terrorist activities – disseminated information gathered by that taskforce, and shared information provided by private security attached to the gas project with some of the task force members.
Observers, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue these efforts break Oregon law.
Previously, the Guardian revealed the existence of the South-western Oregon Joint Task Force (SWOJTF), a group spearheaded by the Coos county sheriff’s office (CCSO), and its surveillance of those opposing the Jordan Cove energy project: a $10bn proposed liquid natural gas project that would include a new export terminal in Coos Bay, Oregon.
The sheriff’s office passed on information harvested from social media accounts and emails to a network of local, state and federal police agencies. In addition to monitoring non-violent protests by Jordan Cove opponents, the SWOJTF has also tracked individuals’ attendance at regulatory hearings and routine campaign emails circulated by grassroots groups such as Southern Oregon Rising Tide, Rogue Climate and 350 Eugene.
Chuck Cogburn, who is currently an analyst with the Oregon Titan Fusion Center, has been among the regular recipients of SWOJTF emails, records obtained by the Guardian via open records requests show.
On 8 November 2018, Cogburn, who until 2015 also served as the director of the fusion center, responded to an email circulated by the CCSO deputy Bryan Valencia on a pipeline protest at a Medford Chamber of Commerce meeting, by telling Valencia he will “put this out as a SAR”, which fusion centers define as a “suspicious activity report”.
Later, on 22 March, Cogburn forwarded an email from a private firm providing security services for Pembina, the project’s owner, to Valencia and Strain. The initial email read: “There is a protest scheduled in front of our Klamath office next Thursday from 12-2pm. The local Democrat Party dropped the poster below at the chamber office, and then joined the chamber.
It then reproduced the text of a poster for a “block the pipe party” protest held at a theater in Klamath Falls on 5 April.
Cogburn forwarded it with the message, “FYI. Not sure if you get these.”
The national network of fusion centers were created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as focal points for cooperation and information sharing between federal, state and local agencies in detecting and responding to terrorist and criminal activities. In 2018 the House homeland security committee counted 79 fusion centers around the country.
In its own materials, the Titan Fusion Center is described as “a collaborative effort of state and federal law enforcement agencies”, focused on “terrorism, organized crime and gang-related criminal activity”.
The center also says that it “may retain protected information that is based on a level of suspicion that is less than ‘reasonable suspicion’, such as tips and leads or suspicious activity report (SAR) information”.
National fusion center materials say that they “receive information from a variety of sources, including suspicious activity reporting (SAR) information from stakeholders within their jurisdictions, as well as federal information and intelligence”.
The center also says that it “will not seek or retain information about an individual or organization solely on the basis of their religious, political, racial, or social views or activities; their participation in a particular non-criminal organization or lawful event”.
The center states that its activities are governed by Oregon statutes that prevent the gathering of “information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities”.
But it is precisely such statutes that observers like the ACLU of Oregon say that SWOJTF, and the fusion center, are breaking.
Kelly Simon, an ACLU of Oregon staff attorney, said: “These communications are just more evidence of the Coos county sheriff’s and Titan Fusion Center’s utter disregard for the bedrock principle of freedom of expression and of Oregon’s anti-profiling laws”.
National and local environmental leaders agree.
Meanwhile, 45 leaders from international, national and Oregon-based organizations sent a letter to Governor Kate Brown on 26 September calling on her to withdraw the state’s cooperation with any surveillance of activists, citing the Guardian’s reporting on the SWOJTF last month. Prominent activists, including Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, argued that “monitoring and compiling information about Oregonians’ political or social views, activities, or associations violates Oregon law”, and ask that the governor “protect the civil liberties of your constituents by withdrawing all Oregon resources and participation in the SWOJTF immediately”.
University of Southern Maine criminologist Brendan McQuade, the author of a recent book on fusion centers, says fusion centers and other law enforcement taskforces frequently help law agencies get around laws like the one in Oregon.
“The structure allows the police to take advantage of the unevenness of the laws in different jurisdictions, by utilizing the differing powers afforded to state, local and federal agencies as part of a flexible overall operation,” McQuade said.
Chuck Cogburn, the analyst, did not respond to emailed questions from the Guardian, but his LinkedIn page lists his duties as: “Support Fusion Center operations. Provide analytical support. Produced risk, threat, vulnerability assessment.”
At the state level, the center falls under the purview of the Oregon department of justice (DoJ). A DoJ spokesperson did not respond to a detailed request for comment on adding the Medford protest to a SAR, or on the composition of the taskforce. Asked about passing on information from a private firm about the Klamath Falls protest to CCSO, the spokesperson said, “Mr Cogburn forwarded on a notice for an advertised event. It was public information, so it was not considered confidential material.”
The Titan Fusion Center has encountered criticism before regarding its monitoring of left-leaning activists on social media. In 2016, a fusion center investigator allegedly violated Oregon law by using a software package, DigitalStakeOut, to monitor the head of the civil rights unit in the Oregon department of justice.
In that instance, the investigator used DigitalStakeout to geographically isolate the source of tweets which used the #blacklivesmatter hashtag to the Oregon DoJ headquarters. The tweets had been sent by Erious Johnson, the head of the civil rights unit. Some of the tweets which put Johnson under surveillance were about the hip-hop group Public Enemy. Johnson sued the state over the surveillance, settling in 2017.
In 2016, the fusion center investigator, James Williams, said that he had not been aware that Oregon law made his surveillance illegal. Reportedly, it was Cogburn who had arranged for the center to receive the trial of the software which allowed Williams to pinpoint Johnson’s tweets.
The CCSO spokesman, Captain Gabriel Fabrizio, has described SWOJTF as having been “created to ensure a multi-agency approach to any and all contingencies. Coos county, due to the potential sighting [sic] of the terminal on the Coos Bay, has been conducting drills and planning regarding all hazards since Jordan Cove has made its intentions known.”
In fact, the fusion center appears to have played a key role in setting up the southern Oregon taskforce. In an April 2017 letter to Oregon legislators supporting a boost in Fusion Center funding, the Coos county sheriff, Craig Zanni, wrote that “[t]he Oregon Titan Fusion Center has provided leadership and guidance that is facilitating the formulation of the Southwestern Oregon Joint Task Force.”
Zanni wrote in the same letter that the taskforce would “be instrumental in combating the extremist agenda in Southern Oregon”.
CCSO did not respond to a detailed request for comment about SWOJTF’s relationship with the fusion center, and what the “extremist agenda” in southern Oregon amounts to.
In the wake of the 2016-17 Dakota Access pipeline movement, the Department of Homeland Security and seven state fusion centers produced a nationally circulated bulletin that had similarly claimed the NoDAPL movement has been associated with a rise in “environmental rights extremism”.
Lauren Regan, the executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, said labeling of activists as “extremists” is part of a strategy for marginalizing them from potential supporters.
“The use of the term ‘extremism’ is a government calling card when it intends to use repressive criminalization against a social movement,” Regan added.