charleston – The West Virginia Intelligence/Fusion Center, which shares information among law-enforcement agencies, other governmental agencies, and private organizations in an effort to prevent, prepare and respond to criminal activity, hazardous situations, poised threats and terrorist-related activity, has been operating without legislative oversight since 2008, lawmakers heard Tuesday.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and Homeland Security on Tuesday voted on House Bill 4176, sponsored by Del. Rodney Miller, D-Boone, to give themselves statutory oversight over the center, including establishing a committee that had auditing authority. 

The center, according to legal counsel for the committee, told lawmakers it had been in operation since 2008, when then-Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who is now serving in the United States Senate, issued an executive order establishing it.

According to an executive order that Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, signed in 2018, keeping the center in operation, it is a “criminal justice entity” that is the “primary clearing house for the State of West Virginia for the collection of, the analysis of, and the proper distribution of information and actionable intelligence for the State.”

The executive order also states that such centers began operating after 9/11, and that the center “shall establish partnerships between law enforcement agencies, state agencies, private sector partners, critical infrastructure leaders, and the citizens of West Virginia as well as other States and their citizens in an effort to collect, analyze, vet, and properly disseminate actionable intelligence needed in order to develop and maintain a safe hospitable environment to live in, travel in, and in which to create business.”

Lawmakers passed a revised version of House Bill 4176, called a committee substitute. An attorney for the committee said among other changes, lawyers for the committee and committee leadership had added additional express safeguards for the protection of civil liberties throughout the bill, provided whistle-blower protection, and established a select legislative oversight committee for the center with auditing authority.

“Thank you very much for protecting our rights,” Del. Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, told him.

Under questioning from Del. Marshall Wilson, an Independent representing Berkeley County, Thom Kirk, deputy cabinet secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said that intelligence that the center shares requires probable cause and must be “actionable.”

Kirk said while he didn’t know if could “accurately” define intelligence, he described it as “information that’s been able to be vetted and now is actionable.”

He said that while they haven’t had legislative oversight, they are audited “constantly” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He also said they previously operated under direction of the cabinet secretary.

“You’ll forgive me and I realize this isn’t your fault, but we’ve seen what’s been going on with the Department of Justice, FBI,” Wilson responded, “so I as a citizen of this state am not – frankly that doesn’t calm my concerns.”

Also under questioning, Kirk said they could “work with” the committee substitute but he’d have to “go down line by line” to say if the center supported the committee substitute.

“I think that again they had good suggestions that we could incorporate without much of a problem,” Kirk said.

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh said he wanted to “clear up a few things,” and asked if the committee substitute was “fundamentally how the Fusion Center operates right now and has operated for 12 years,” aside from the new legislative oversight.

“Yes sir,” Kirk said. 

“So now something that was created out of executive order twelve years ago is now going to be codified, and the Legislature will have bipartisan oversight of everything that you’ve been doing for 12 years, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Kirk said.

“And what the fusion center is meant to do, it’s not spy on U.S. citizens or anything of that nature, but to view the world through open-source, utilizing  people that understand how to view the information, and direct it to the local agency that needs the information the most,” Steele said.

“Yes sir,” Kirk said.

“I’ve been receiving texts – I don’t know whether it’s open source or not – from a lot of my 911 centers that say they like you and they’d like to stay with you, that you’re a good guy, would you agree with that?” Del. Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, said, laughing. 

Kirk told her that “yes, ma’am, he would definitely agree.”

The bill passed on a voice vote. It now goes to the House of Delegates Committee on the Judiciary. 

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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