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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Update: Former Travis County deputy suspected of killing 3 in northwest Austin now in police custody
Stephen Broderick is now in police custody for a suspected domestic violence incident that killed three in northwest Austin on Sunday.
After initially being called an active shooting incident, joint local law enforcement and more than 75 FBI agents proceeded with an almost day-long manhunt with three helicopters and on-ground teams for former Travis County deputy Broderick. Police captured him after a 911 caller reported a suspicious man walking along U.S. 290, where he was taken into custody.
Police believe the victims, who have been identified as two Hispanic women and one Black man, knew their assailant. A child was involved but is now safely in police custody. Two of the victims have been identified as former and current Elgin ISD students: Alyssa Broderick and Willie Simmons III.
The school district released a statement offering its condolences to the families. Alyssa was enrolled until October 2020 and played on the basketball team. Simmons was a senior at Elgin High School where he was captain of the football team and had been recruited to play football at the University of North Tes
APD @Chief_Chacon provides updated media briefing in relation to Great Hills Trail incident. - PIO8 https://t.co/47siNWhARI
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) April 18, 2021
During a press briefing at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, Interim Police Chief Joe Chacon said law enforcement was on the scene for several hours, investigating the incident with 41-year-old Broderick.
"We're very sorry that obviously this has happened and we continue to try and locate this individual, we are transitioning from a search in this area to a fugitive search and those efforts will continue until this person is located," Chacon said. "I don't want anyone to think that we're packing up and going home. We're going to continue to look for this individual because he continues to pose a threat to this community."
#texasshooting #masshooting Arboretum shooting Austin. pic.twitter.com/SkIsgDoYHt
— Jamie Hammonds (@jamie_hammonds5) April 18, 2021
This story has been updated at 8 a.m. Monday to include the latest information.
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Formula 1 is returning to Florida for the first time since 1959, announcing that the brand-new Miami Grand Prix will join the calendar in 2022 and Austin will no longer be the only F1 race in the U.S.
Held at the Hard Rock Stadium complex in Miami Gardens, this will be the first race in the Sunshine State in 62 years. With a new track setup, F1 will loop the stadium, home of the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Excited for @F1 @f1miami @HardRockStadium - a Global Entertainment Destination. This event will bring opportunities for so many and will be world-class. Thank you to @gregmaffei #chasecarey #stefanodomenicali @MayorRHarris @Ogilbert @CommishDiaz @MayorDaniella pic.twitter.com/n6dDDD1cPX
— Tom Garfinkel (@TomGarfinkel) April 18, 2021
The new 3.36 mile circuit has 19 corners, three straights and potential for three DRS zones, with expected top speeds of 198 mph.
Now with two races in the U.S., F1 President Stefano Domenicali said they will avoid having back-to-back events by keeping the Miami Grand Prix separate from the U.S. Grand Prix, which is held at Austin's Circuit of the Americas.
The date of the race has yet to be confirmed, though Domenicali said he expects the first race in a 10-year deal to take place in the second quarter of 2022. Austin's race will take place on Oct. 24 this year.
"The USA is a key growth market for us, and we are greatly encouraged by our growing reach in the U.S. which will be further supported by this exciting second race," Domenicali said.
Miami will mark the 11th race location in the U.S. since the Championship began in 1950: Circuit of The Americas in Austin; Dallas, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Sebring, Florida; Riverside, California; Watkins Glen, New York; Long Beach, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Detroit, Michigan and Phoenix, Arizona. COTA was first opened in 2012.
Domenicali said F1 will be working with the FIA and the Hard Rock Stadium to leave a lasting impact on the community: discounted tickets for residents, a program to support local businesses and a STEM education program through F1 in schools.
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