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Bill would protect workers in state intelligence-gathering agency
Date published: 2/2/2008
RICHMOND--Employees of a Virginia State Police intelligence center would be shielded from subpoena and civil lawsuits, and people giving information to the center would have immunity from defamation and invasion of privacy claims under a bill sent to the House of Delegates yesterday.
The measure also would make it a criminal offense to disclose information given to the anti-terrorism center and make it exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The Virginia Fusion Information Center was established in 2005 as a counterterrorism tool. It's meant to facilitate the sharing of information between law enforcement and government agencies to help prevent or respond to possible terrorist attacks.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Dwight Jones, D-Richmond, makes confidential any information the center collects, exempting it from the Freedom of Information Act, and says that employees can't be subpoenaed in any civil action to give information about the documents or investigations of the center.
Supporters say the bill is necessary to protect investigations into possible terrorist activities, and to ensure that federal agencies are willing to share their own information with state authorities.
"You would basically privilege information that was sent into the fusion center," said Del. Bill Janis, R-Goochland, who explained the bill to the House Militia, Police and Public Safety committee. "Absent that kind of immunity, a lot of federal agencies simply will not send the kind of information that really is the most useful intelligence. It's to promote interagency cooperation."
Janis said the center will be a clearinghouse for criminal intelligence that could be related, or lead to, investigations into terrorist activities, and that without keeping all that information confidential, targets of investigations could potentially discover the investigations. That could also endanger any undercover agents or informants in criminal networks.
Opponents, including the Virginia Press Association, say the bill goes too far in creating FOIA exemptions.
"It does raise some questions about government access that are critically important," said VPA attorney Craig Merritt.
Merritt said protecting information about terrorist investigations from the targets of those investigations is laudable and understandable. His concern, he said, is that the bill is written much more broadly than the part of the Virginia Code that authorizes the Fusion center itself.
Jones' bill, Merritt said, doesn't distinguish between information on regular criminal investigations and terrorism-related investigations.