Tucked into Gov. Tim Walz's budget requests is one that could help make Minnesotans safer from the threats posed by terrorist groups. Those threats, as we have seen firsthand, can be foreign or domestic.
The Minnesota Fusion Center's anodyne name belies a serious purpose: gathering, analyzing and sharing information related to criminal or terrorist threats among federal, state, local, tribal and other entities. Before the deadly 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., this type of information-sharing often proved difficult, with too many bureaucratic obstacles. Following the terror attacks of 2001, state fusion centers were created to cut through those hurdles.
But the threat level has only grown since then, and now it is domestic terrorism that is on the rise, with the Department of Homeland Security calling it the "most persistent and lethal threat" to the United States.
The Fusion Center's seven analysts are no longer enough. "More funding would allow us to operate closer to 24/7, so we can deal with issues as they come up," said Drew Evans, superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Evans told an editorial writer that, "We're seeing threats to schools from active shooters, threats to faith-based institutions." The recent shooting/bombing incident at a health clinic in Buffalo, along with the State Capitol being mentioned twice as a target in recent FBI reports, is just some of what the center deals with. "Our goal is to disrupt, so that we can avoid dangerous situations," he said.
The funding would allow the center to triple the number of analysts to 21 and create a permanent home for them within the BCA, said Teddy Tschann, Walz's spokesman. It also would make possible four additional state agents to work with the FBI's joint counterterrorism task force.
That would require $4 million upfront and a little over $2 million annually. Evans said it is already known that groups such as Boogaloo Boys, Proud Boys, Three Percenters and others are operating in Minnesota. The need for a more extensive, round-the-clock operation is clear.
It was Fusion Center analysts, for instance, who helped track the Buffalo medical clinic bomber/shooter in February. That turned out not to be a coordinated attack, but it was Fusion Center analysts who helped determine that and relay critical information to local law enforcement.
All of this coordination must, of course, be balanced with a healthy respect for individual privacy. Evans said the center adheres to a strict set of rules that prohibit the gathering of information about individuals engaged in noncriminal activities. According to Homeland Security, Fusion Center directors across the country, along with the federal government, have identified the protection of privacy, civil rights and civil liberties as a "key priority."
Sen. Warren Limmer, chairman of the Senate's public safety committee, told Star Tribune reporter Andy Mannix that "the very basic principle of government surveillance is whether or not there's balance. Sometimes that balance point becomes really muddy, and it really takes a discipline in the Legislature to define the use of this expanded infrastructure."
The Legislature should assure those privacy concerns are addressed. It should also approve the additional funding for the Minnesota Fusion Center.