Is ARIC Still Watching?
Despite scrutiny, fusion center still keeps tabs on protests
Coming on the heels of the BlueLeaks hack of national intelligence "fusion centers" that we've covered at the Chronicle, recently published documents reveal that the Austin Regional Intelligence Center continued its monitoring of numerous events this summer connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. As obtained by The Intercept and confirmed by the Austin Police Department as legitimate, the events that ARIC reported on included an online Juneteenth festival.
ARIC, which is operated by APD, is one of many fusion centers recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As a response to the perceived failures of intelligence-sharing that enabled the 9/11 attacks, centers like ARIC were designed to "fuse" information gathered by local law enforcement agencies and the private sector that could help avert terrorism and criminal activity. The two "Informational Bulletins" obtained by The Intercept were published in June and July, after the BlueLeaks hack became public. They contain 24 event listings connected to BLM, along with two "Back the Blue" events in support of law enforcement.
A heading on each bulletin acknowledges that ARIC "safeguards" First Amendment rights by only reporting on "activities where the potential use of incitement rhetoric could be used to instigate acts of violence." But none of the events listed in the bulletin featured such rhetoric, including the virtual Juneteenth "Stay Black and Live" festival hosted by the Carver Museum and streamed online. With music, spoken-word performances, and a presentation by Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, the event took place without incident. Another entry lists a "Sandra Bland Day, a Celebration of Life" that also took place at the museum with Harper-Madison as a featured guest.
ARIC Deputy Director Ron Phillips told the Chronicle, "Understanding that threats are frequently made online, whether an event is planned to be virtual or [as] an in-person gathering, we will always do our best to ensure a safe environment for anyone attending any event we are aware of." He added that "ARIC completely understands concerns as they may relate to 'monitoring' protests or events" and maintained that "we do not continually monitor protests or events."
In an email to The Intercept, Harper-Madison said, "The Austin Police Department is charged with the safety of our City. It is imperative that they follow policy, show restraint, and compassion to ensure their own safety and that of our community."
Throughout the bulletins, entries consistently note that protests are expected to be peaceful. However, an InfoWars-organized "Back the Blue" listing does warn of potential counterprotests. It includes a social media post by @atxprotests warning, "NOT a friendly protest ... If you'll be there, be careful & stick together." An ARIC analyst described @atxprotests as "primarily an informational outlet for anti-police and racial justice rally events." "Infowars personality Savannah Hernandez [who] announced this event" was cited as ARIC's source.
A June 20 protest by Star Power Blac Kollective is the only event listed that presents the potential for the kind of "imminent" public safety concern cited by Steffensen, with its host announcing, "This is a protest to interrupt the city streets," suggesting the march will be unpermitted. But like all the other entries, there is no specific mention of an expectation of potential violence.