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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.
Had the bill spoken only to documents related to terrorism investigations, Merritt said, the VPA would not have a problem with it.
But lawmakers argued that it's impossible to draw lines between criminal and terrorism investigations, because criminal investigations could lead law enforcement to terrorism groups.
"The subcommittee came down on the side of drawing a circle around this Fusion center, because the lines are not so clean-cut" between criminals and terrorists, Janis said.
A state police spokesman added that criminal organizations and terrorism organizations are "inextricably linked."
Henry County Commonwealth's Attorney Bob Bushnell testified that he was shocked that this wasn't law already.
"Nothing can more effectively derail and destroy an investigation than for the targets of the investigation to learn of the fact of the investigation and the details thereof," Bushnell said. "A vote against this bill is a vote for the public's right to know, but unfortunately the public includes bad guys. The bad guys can take huge advantage of this. It's probably the most important bill on the committee's docket and I hope you report it."
The committee approved the bill unanimously, but it will go next to the House Appropriations Committee.
Chelyen Davis: 804/782-9362