Greater Austin residents who have worn "an Arabic style hat" in public, snapped photos of gas pipelines or made anti-police comments on social media in the last decade may have been added to a secret watchlist of suspected domestic terrorists.
News of this surveillance program first broke when the hacktivist group Anonymous claimed to have made public a massive trove of law enforcement private data, dubbed BlueLeaks.
The group stole data from more than 250 law enforcement websites, many of which belonged to fusion centers. Created by Congress in the aftermath of 9/11, fusion centers function as collaborative databases through which federal, state and local enforcement agencies can share terrorism-related intelligence.
The BlueLeaks trove contained nearly a decade of information from the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, a fusion center set up in 2010 to weave together intelligence information from 20 local law enforcement agencies, ranging from school district police departments to county sheriff's offices. It is one of eight fusion centers in the state of Texas.
The ARIC currently works with 1,388 threat liaison officers, or TLOs, according to an APD spokesperson. These officers include sworn police as well as government employees and private citizens. APD has 366 TLOs, the spokesperson wrote in an email to Austonia.
TLOs are trained to report suspicious activity "that has a potential terrorism or criminal nexus," per the spokesperson, and their reports are reviewed by ARIC personnel to ensure it was "legally gathered" and meets federal standards.
The reports released within BlueLeaks, however, raise questions about the threshold of suspicious behavior.
Kevin Welch is the president of EFF-Austin, a nonprofit civil liberties organization. The ARIC has been on the group's radar since it was formed a decade ago, he said, but BlueLeaks has corroborated some of their concerns.
"One thing that came out in BlueLeaks specific to Austin is that there have been multiple instances reported to ARIC where a behavior that would not have been deemed suspicious by an average citizen got flagged by ARIC simply because the person reported was of Middle Eastern descent," Welch told Austonia. "So we see (them) inconsistent applying their own rules about what is and isn't suspicious based on the race of the suspect—so engaging in blatant racial profiling—even though that's ostensibly against their formal policy and standards."
The Austin Chronicle reported that dozens of the suspicious activity reports filed by TLOs affiliated with the AIRC describe "Middle Eastern" individuals and may qualify as unconstitutional profiling. One such report, filed by an employee of the Lakeway Police Department, concerned a couple trying to mail a package of toys to Lebanon, according to the newspaper; another warns of a regular MetroRail rider who was wearing "an Arabic style hat."
BlueLeaks also reveals police monitoring of activists.
Houston-based activist Derrick Broze tweeted on Aug. 17 that he and a friend, Austin bookstore owner John Bush, had been reported by a TLO in 2016 for "anti-government" activism and "organizing against police brutality."
Found out a good friend/activist John Bush and I were listed in the #BlueLeaks from Austin Regional Intelligence Ce… https://t.co/4H9lAtGMtl— Derrick Broze (@Derrick Broze)1597720769.0
Grassroots Leadership, a local nonprofit that advocates against mass incarceration, published a report on Aug. 5 titled "Austin's Big Secret." In it, the authors write about ARIC's "troubling history" with surveilling Austin residents, including those who attended Occupy Wall Street protests and vegan potlucks.
Tribune of the People, a website that chronicles the activities of local antifa groups such as Defend Our Hoodz and the Mike Ramos Brigade, published an editorial in July that argued BlueLeaks "paints a picture of how (law enforcement agencies) profile the movement, stretching the imagination in order to criminalize it."
Emma Best is the co-founder of Distributed Denial of Secrets, a self-described "group of privacy and transparency activists." The group was reportedly provided the BlueLeaks data by Anonymous, which it published. "I've seen a few comments about (BlueLeaks) being unlikely to uncover gross police misconduct, but I think those somewhat miss the point, or at least equate police misconduct solely with illegal behavior," she told Wired. "Part of what a lot of the current protests are about is what police do and have done legally."
There are also concerns about the efficacy of fusion centers in achieving their stated aim.
Despite the investment of "hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars," such centers "(have) not produced useful intelligence to support Federal counterterrorism efforts," according to a 2012 U.S. Senate report.
Welch said he is hopeful that BlueLeaks may spur policy change, pointing to the impact that cell footage of police violence had in catalyzing the Black Lives Matter movement.
"People are ending up in the ARIC database for just taking pictures of public buildings from public right of ways... —that's something that anybody could envision themselves innocently doing," Welch said. "And suddenly they're in this database as a suspicious person. So I think that can go a long way in getting people to understand there's a problem."
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Mount Bonnell<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTUyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDEzODU5NX0.SQVQYQc5VpT_UQe-BQsexRgUp1yIUbjiB-Hz7cAgkUE/img.jpg?width=980" id="6a82f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6909566cc1a80e66660ddb3153882a5f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1599" data-height="1066" />
(Spawnzilla/CC)<p>Mount Bonnell is probably the most well-known scenic locale in Austin and has been since the 1830s. Known for its panoramic view of downtown, Lady Bird Lake and the Hill Country to the west. Today thousands of visitors ascend the 106 stone stairs to the summit to take in the beautiful view. Located in Covert Park in Northeast Austin, the trail is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjg0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjg2NjY4OH0.3hTVUhMTrJ7FkqWgYivC03M7NbQGhkvM85St6nSACF8/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C240%2C0%2C240&height=800" id="6db33" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="be5523bfa32d06f91a0e0915e7f1fd3b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(MX/Wikimedia)<p>The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is a 10-mile boardwalk with numerous entrance and exit points and is Austin's most recognized and popular recreational trail. Not only is it an Austin favorite for exercise, it also hosts one of the most beautiful views of Austin's skyline the city has to offer. The paved trail runs over Lady Bird Lake, also known as Town Lake, giving people an undisturbed view of Downtown Austin overlooking the water. The trail is dog friendly with a leash and wheelchair accessible.</p>
Zilker Park<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDE0NzMzNn0.hE8NKm_6Ldoi36TZcTVHAbc9K6H1FWTqnI8cK60u3jY/img.jpg?width=980" id="2cb32" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4696ca4392a59a956761ae419b161a7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Mwyzykowski0821/Wikimedia)<p>Zilker Park is Austin's pride and joy. The park hosts ACL every year (when there isn't a pandemic), the Trail of Lights each holiday season and other events in the city. The 351-acre space is the go-to locale for Austinites who want to get outside and enjoy a direct view of the city skyline--usually serving as a backdrop for any event held at the spot. As one of the only scenic destinations to allow dogs off-leash, it is the most dog-friendly spot in the city. Zilker Park is wheelchair accessible (although it might be best to avoid the park after rain).</p>
Barton Creek Greenbelt-Sculpture Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTU2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTU1NDE2NX0.kM0EJgiwl60yCLYd2xMtqPUM9ukysu_KmQhMiP6XGMo/img.jpg?width=980" id="75e17" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="64cdd0ef728567c25261e17227855fe6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
(Austonia)<p><strong></strong>Sculpture Falls is a hidden location on the 7.9 mile Barton Creek Greenbelt. The best way to access the location is via the Hill of Life and the Trail's End access point in South Austin at 1710 Camp Craft Road. The scenic views of this location may not be sweeping views of the city skyline, however, the glistening pools and waterfalls, the trees hanging over the water make the spot one of the most underrated in Austin. The hike back up the Hill of Life is 1.5 miles and mostly on the sun, so make sure to bring plenty of water. The location is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
McKinney Falls-Upper and Lower Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODY3MTE0NH0.yBqNznABvsJCBp_tdrREOMI20eWy3a4dNLwBbe4SKAc/img.jpg?width=980" id="135bf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c712742e6dbe4592a7294aad89b9f655" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1760" data-height="796" />
Photo of Lower McKinney Falls
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>McKinney Falls is one of the many Texas State parks and is a series of two waterfalls–an upper and lower falls. Both spots feature limestone waterfalls along Onion Creek and swimming pools. The lower falls are more shallow and recommended for families with younger children while the upper falls are a bit deeper. Pets are allowed on a leash in the park, however, they are not allowed in the water at the falls. The park is not fully wheelchair accessible. There is a $6 fee for adults to enter the park and children under 12 can enter for free. During COVID, it is recommended to make reservations to enter the park if you plan to visit.<br></p>
Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTc0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEyNzM3Mn0.HATaya2WqEf1dRD6zO2WMvoCQii7mHKa9oJ9H2Huxqg/img.jpg?width=980" id="f503b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="96c77fa947db2d4ae07efc545785fc12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2040" data-height="1530" />
(Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center/Facebook)<p>Located in far-west Austin, Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center is the farthest out from Austin's city center and is another location that may not offer sweeping views of the Hill Country, however, the center features some of the most unique views in Texas. The highlight of the preserve is Westcave at the head of the canyon. It features a 40-foot waterfall backed by caves, diverse vegetation and an emerald pool. Canyon tours are not dog-friendly but are wheelchair accessible; they are offered every Saturday & Sunday. Self-guided hikes are offered Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and require reservations.</p>
Red Bud Isle<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0MTk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTcwNDA4N30.ImQe01BIolSJVNBCJAFbQz1WfuDP8fitr_XXZWNytQk/img.jpg?width=980" id="767c3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a21655c41f9c7da188eb99dd0371d2dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lady bird lake dog winslow swimming" />
(Austonia)<p>Red Bud Isle is one of the most popular areas for pet owners to let their dogs off-leash in Austin. The small island lies just below the Tom Miller Dam on Town Lake. The edge of Red Bud Isle offers a view of Town Lake and the densely-packed trees to either side. Depending on the time of year, colorful kayaks and stand-up paddleboards add some pop of color to the view. The 13-acre park is, of course, dog-friendly and wheelchair accessible. Be careful with your pets during the summer months, however, as there have been <a href="https://austonia.com/city/algae-killing-dogs" target="_blank">toxic algae blooms two years in a row</a>.<br></p>
Wild Basin Preserve<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzEyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTMwODY3N30.aw3W_bvqThNlF_9WGE5GVte7ajhJoPQxQEUnM4FCT4Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="0b1a3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="615c86b10cc2c034b9518f73534cad3e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">The Wild Basin Preserve is 227 acres of Hill Country woodlands owned by Travis County and St. Edwards University as part of the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which protects the unique environments of seven endangered species and 28 threatened plant and animal species. The preserve is home to the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler as well as many other Texas-native plants and wildlife. There isn't any one location that is the highlight of the preserve—the highlight is spotting the local wildlife. While it has been closed for the past several months, Wild Basin is expected to open for limited hours in late-January. It is not pet-friendly and is somewhat wheelchair accessible.</span><span style="background-color: initial;"></span><br></p>
Barton Springs<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NTY4NzMzMH0.1Nd-a5CEiPDSaLOB_nJYAZiHC8dZVvS5l4QOJhHsvd8/img.jpg?width=980" id="721f6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="82bc4f00174755913a86a103f01ad6ad" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="720" data-height="403" />
Section of Barton Springs on the paid access side. (austintx.gov)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Barton Springs is another one of those locations that doesn't have one particular highlight. There are two sections to Barton Springs: one section requires a small entrance fee and allows for a little more space to sprawl out, whereas the other, much larger, section is free but sometimes requires a little creativity with where you set up camp. Both sides feature cool, clear, blue water from the natural springs in the area. </span><br></p>
Congress Avenue Bridge<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkyNjcxNn0.ieWjFaKRtsoVrudyGVtp_q3xlM8ghFgd7Y-QZqQVOoo/img.jpg?width=980" id="c4dfa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e69c74aa25973d14285a49d8b070bd1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="641" data-height="426" />
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>The Congress Avenue Bridge goes over Lady Bird Lake and is a place to get a very unique view of the city. Every year, Austinites gather on the bridge to witness up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats feed on 10-30,000 pounds of insects. The best time to view the bats is mid-August when you can see them ascending into the evening sky. This area of Austin is wheelchair accessible and pet-friendly with a leash.</p>
The Middle of Town Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzExOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjIxNDQzN30.DAnxtXZTYH60LicTxw4J_qzJ7CSZ2ez7hNi8qFaxjJ4/img.jpg?width=980" id="a81af" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4dc3198f3a64889a16d7f442f56e0a2c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
Evening view from the middle of Town Lake
(Laura Figi/Austonia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This one might seem a little odd, but get yourself a kayak or stand up paddle board and enjoy the view of the city from the water. It's a unique perspective on the city that is probably the best representation of why this city is so unique. There are also some boat tours throughout the year. Boat tours are wheelchair accessible. The lake has multiple entrance points and pets are allowed on water vessels, but not in the water.</span><br></p>