NASHVILLE -- State anti-terrorism officials listed the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on an Internet map detailing "terrorism events and other suspicious activity" after the group warned schools to ensure holiday celebrations "are inclusive."
ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg called the Tennessee Fusion Center's tracking of First Amendment-protected activity "deeply disturbing."
While saying improving and sharing anti-terrorism intelligence among different levels of government is "legitimate and important," Weinberg said, "Equating a group's attempts to protect religious freedom in Tennessee with suspicious activity related to terrorism is outrageous. Religious freedom is a founding principle in our Constitution -- not fodder for overzealous law enforcement."
Tennessee's Fusion Center was created in 2007, one of dozens established nationwide following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The purpose was to help state agencies pool and analyze information about terrorism and other threats. It is a collaborative effort by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Office of Homeland Security.
Mike Browning, a spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security, said "certainly it was not our intent to post it [ACLU's letter to schools] as a terrorist incident. That was a mistake."
"But," Browning said, "I don't believe that it's outrageous that we're basically taking information that was published in an open service media source and ... making sure it gets to the appropriate law enforcement."
The Fusion Center's Internet map is part of a national map maintained by globalincendentmap.com. Information is provided by agencies across the U.S. It includes various blinking icons. The map's label originally was titled Terrorism Events and Other Suspicious Activity.
Near Nashville, a blinking hexagon-shaped symbol with an exclamation point read "ACLU cautions TN schools about 'observing one religious holiday.'" The hexagon symbol, when clicked on, originally stated "suspicious activity." But it later was changed to say "general nonincident terrorism news" after inquiries by reporters.
The map's label also was changed. It now says Open Source News Reports. An icon near Chattanooga features a symbol of a person along with a question mark.
When a cursor is placed on the symbol, a caption reads: "Turkish National Salih Acarbulut Indicted in Chattanooga for Alleged $12 million Ponzi Scheme." That stems from an FBI news release. When clicked on, the caption characterizes the information as "Other Suspicious Activity."
Browning said information about the ACLU's letter was intended for Tennessee school resource officers, whom he described as "customers" of the Fusion Center.
ACLU's Weinberg said in an interview she spoke to state officials about the posting.
"I will take at their word that they made a mistake by posting it under terrorism activity," she said. "I have not heard a good explanation for why school resource officers, who have a very important job in schools, would at all be interested or need to know about the letter we sent to local school superintendents about the need to keep holiday celebrations all inclusive."
Weinberg said there "seems to be no oversight on what's posted on these maps and how it's categorized."
She said there have been other incidents in U.S. history regarding domestic spying into legitimate activity by citizens.
"The best thing about this is there's a dialogue now beginning and this clearly is a good opportunity to explain to the commissioner of Homeland Security and the TBI why there need to be better guidelines in place, which include better oversight and transparency," Weinberg said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...