Tag: dhs

The Obama Administration’s FOIA Compliance

Jim Harper has done a lot of work on the Obama administration’s efforts to be more transparent, especially with regard to “sunlight before signing,” earmark data, and FOIA compliance. The Obama administration could do a lot more on the FOIA front.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) recently added a FOIA Project, which lists all FOIA requests that have become the subject of federal litigation since October 1, 2009. This includes an interactive FOIA Map that lets you zoom in and locate lawsuits across the United States.

TRAC has proven an invaluable resource for tracking federal government activities, and has been litigating FOIA requests for years. A recent Supreme Court decision, Milner v. Department of the Navy, reduced the ability of government agencies to withhold data under FOIA exemptions. Undeterred, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official “informed TRAC that those who had requested and been denied access to documents under the FOIA prior to the court’s ground-breaking decision was rendered had no right to obtain them.” More details are available here.

It’s pretty bad when ICE is hiding behind procedural barriers to sidestep FOIA requests; it’s another ballgame entirely at the Department of Homeland Security. DHS officials tried to turn the objective standard of FOIA — disclosure to one is disclosure to all — into a subjective one, looking into the political beliefs of the requester to avoid embarrassment for DHS. An email trail shows how a former Obama staffer asked DHS employees to redact “politically sensitive” details from FOIA releases. Obama officials defended DHS’s FOIA policy in congressional hearings, and a DHS attorney tried to remove exhibits from the hearings. His explanation:

“As counsel for DHS, I object to counsel for the committee’s refusal to allow exhibits they had shown to the witness and that all are e-mail messages from DHS personnel to DHS personnel on their official DHS-issued accounts and use of e-mail services. These are not committee records, these are, rather, DHS records; and so there is no reason the committee should be able to prevent us from taking them, since they have shown them to the witness and used them in this interview.”

The Obama administration declared that it would be “the most open and transparent in history.” It is falling well short of the mark.

Does Rep. Aderholt Support or Oppose Having a National ID?

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) is the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. That’s the subcommittee that makes spending decisions for the Department of Homeland Security and the programs within it, including the REAL ID Act.

Earlier this month, a constituent of his from Fyffe, Alabama posted a question on Mr. Aderholt’s Facebook page:

Rep. Aderholt, I’ve seen reports that the “REAL ID ACT” will be implemented in May of this year, giving the govt the ability to track every person who has a drivers license via encoded GPS. Is this actually the case and if so, what is the House going to do to stop this Orwellian infringement of our Liberty. Also, HOW could this have happened in the first place!

Mr. Aderholt has not replied.

But Right Side News recently reported on a hearing in which DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano presented her agency’s budget request. The DHS has not requested funds for implementing REAL ID. But according to the report, Chairman Aderholt “pointedly reminded” the committee of the need for funding of REAL ID.

It is good of Representative Aderholt to give his constituents a means to contact him and to invite public discussion of the issues. It’s an open question whether he will listen more closely to the voice of his constituents or to influences in Washington, D.C. who would like to see law-abiding American citizens herded into a national ID system.

Is the REAL ID Rebellion Coming to Florida?

Until now, Florida has not been one of the states to buck the federal government’s national ID mandate, established in the REAL ID Act of 2005. A pair of grand jury reports in 2002 had moved the state to tighten its driver licensing processes prior to any federal action, so it was already doing many of the things that the Department of Homeland Security is now seeking to require of states in the name of REAL ID.

Full compliance with REAL ID remains a distant hope, so DHS has set out a list of 18 “milestones,” progress toward which it is treating as REAL ID compliance. Full compliance with REAL ID includes putting driver information into a network for nationwide information sharing—including scanned copies of basic identity documents. It includes giving all licensees and ID holders a nationally uniform driver’s license or ID card so their identity can be checked at airports, federal facilities, and wherever the Secretary of Homeland Security determines to have federal checkpoints.

Again, the state of Florida meets DHS’ milestones. Starting from an already strict driver licensing regime, the state’s bureaucrats have been doing (and asking the legislature to do) things that match up with the requirements of the national ID law. But now, thanks to the work of Florida’s Tenth Amendment Center, Floridians Against REAL ID, and others, the legislature is beginning to pay attention.

Why is it so hard for law-abiding citizens and residents of Florida to get or renew their licenses? What kinds of barriers to progress are being thrown in front of lawful immigrants from Haiti, who haven’t the documentation required to get a license and thus a job?

Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) has lived in Florida since 1955 and was elected to the Florida legislature in 2006. She was born in New Orleans and is not able to get a copy of her birth certificate. The Florida Department of Motor Vehicles would not accept her Florida House ID card as proof of her identity!

Several members of the Florida legislature are concerned that the state is scanning and databasing the basic identity documents of Floridians, exposing those documents and the people of Florida to unknown cybersecurity risks. If these databases were hacked, Floridians’ data would be treasure trove for identity fraud. A breach of an entire state’s identity data could collapse the system we now rely on to know who people are. This is not an improvement in security for Floridians.

Florida’s Cuban ex-pat population has some idea of what could result if they were herded into a national identity system. They are too familiar with central government control of access to goods, services, employment, and other essentials of life. Advocates of national ID systems here in the United States have already argued for using REAL ID to control access to employment, to financial services and credit, to medicines, to housing, and more.

In my testimony to the Florida legislature, I noted that the federal government is impotent to enforce REAL ID. The political costs of a DHS attack on air travel (if it refused to recognize drivers’ licenses from non-compliant states at airport checkpoints) would be too high. Indeed, word is spreading that DHS will soon extend the REAL ID deadline once again.

What’s clear from my visit to Florida is that legislators there respond to what they hear from their constituents. It’s unclear what the Florida legislature will do to reassert control of its driver licensing policy from the concerted action of the federal government and its motor vehicle bureaucrats.

One of the questions they might ask is, “Who committed Florida to comply with REAL ID?” That’s item number seventeen in the DHS’ eighteen-point material compliance checklist.

TSA’s Pistole Says ‘Risk-Based,’ Means ‘Privacy Invasive’

There is one thing you can take to the bank from TSA administrator John Pistole’s statement that he wants to shift to “risk-based” screening at airports: it hasn’t been risk-based up to now. That’s a welcome concession because, as I’ve said before, the DHS and its officials routinely mouth risk terminology, but rarely subject themselves to the rigor of actual risk analysis.

What Administrator Pistole envisions is nothing new. It’s the idea of checking the backgrounds of air travelers more deeply, attempting to determine which of them present less of a threat and which prevent more. That opens security holes that the risk-averse TSA is unlikely to actually tolerate, and it has significant privacy and Due Process consequences, including migration toward a national ID system. 

I wrote about one plan for a “trusted traveler”-type system recently. As the details of what Pistole envisions emerge, I’ll look forward to reviewing it.

The DHS Privacy Committee published a document several years ago that can help Pistole with developing an actual risk-based system and with managing its privacy consequences. The Privacy Committee itself exists to review programs like these, but has not been used for this purpose recently despite claims that it has.

If Pistole wants to shift to risk-based screening, he should require a full risk-based study of airport screening and publish it so that the public, commentators, and courts can compare the actual security benefits of the TSA’s policies with their costs in dollars, risk transfer, privacy, and constitutional values.

We’re All Terrorists Now

The Tennessee ACLU sent a letter to public schools warning them not to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. The Tennessee Fusion Center (H/T Uncle) put the communication on its map of “terrorism events and other suspicious activity”:

“ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday,’” the website’s explanation reads.

Also among the map’s highlights: “McMinn County Teen Brings Gun to School,” and “Turkish National Salih Acarbulut Indicted in Chattanooga for Alleged $12 million Ponzi Scheme.”

Mike Browning, a spokesman for the Fusion Center, said “that was a mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a suspicious activity. He said the Fusion Center meant to use the icon that means merely general information. The icon was changed after the ACLU sent its news release, he said.

“It’s still on the map,” Browning told The City Paper. “It has been reclassified into the general information category.”

But a look at the website shows there is no icon for general information. Instead, the icon for the ACLU letter now signifies “general terrorism news,” according to the website’s legend.

This follows a long line of fusion center and DHS reports labeling broad swaths of the public as a threat to national security. The North Texas Fusion System labeled Muslim lobbyists as a potential threat; a DHS analyst in Wisconsin thought both pro- and anti-abortion activists were worrisome; a Pennsylvania homeland security contractor watched environmental activists, Tea Party groups, and a Second Amendment rally; the Maryland State Police put anti-death penalty and anti-war activists in a federal terrorism database; a fusion center in Missouri thought that all third-party voters and Ron Paul supporters were a threat; and the Department of Homeland Security described half of the American political spectrum as “right wing extremists.”

The ACLU fusion center report and update lay out some good background on these issues, and the Spyfiles report describes how monitoring lawful dissent has become routine for police departments around the nation. Cato hosted Mike German, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and co-author of the ACLU fusion report at a forum on fusion centers, available here.

Shades of Warning: What It Means to Inform

Ben Friedman helpfully supplies more information to go with my positive reaction to the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to scrap color-coded threat warnings.

Our colloquy leaves somewhat open what should replace color-coding. Because most threat warnings are false alarms, and because exhortations to vigilance will tend toward the vagueness of the color-coding system, Ben hopes “DHS winds up being tighter-lipped.”

His points are good ones, but they don’t dissuade me from my belief that DHS should “begin informing the public fully about threats and risks known to the U.S. government.”

The right answer here centers on who is better at digesting threat information—experts in the national security bureaucracy or the public?

There is a great deal of expertise in the U.S. government focused on turning up threat information and digesting it for policymakers. However, that expertise has limits, often manifested as threat inflation, as Ben notes, and as myopia. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Secrecy: The American Experience illustrates the latter well (especially the edition with Richard Gid Powers’ fine introduction).

The public consists of hundreds of millions of subject matter experts in every walk of life. They include owners and operators of all our infrastructure, reporters and commentators in the professional and amateur press, academics, state and local law enforcement personnel, information networks, and social networks of all kinds. We have security-interested folk in the hundreds of millions spread out across the land, all in regular communication with each other. We’re a tremendously powerful information processing machine. I believe this public can do a better job of digesting threat information than “experts,” particularly when it comes to terrorism threats, which can—theoretically, at least—manifest themselves pretty much anywhere.

The public constantly digests risk and threat information from other walks of life. We digest information about ordinary crime, health and disease, finance and investment, driving and walking, etc., etc. There is nothing about terrorism that disables the public from making judgments about threat information and incorporating it into daily life. People can figure out what matters and what does not, and they can apply information in the spheres they know.

When I say “fully inform,” I don’t argue for broadcasting every speck of information the U.S. government collects. There are limited domains in which information sharing will reveal sources and methods, undercutting access to future information. Appropriate caveats are part of ”fully” informing, of course. Natural pressure will cause too speculative threats to be winnowed from public release. But even opening a firehose will get people the water they need to drink.

Tight lips sink ships. The presumption should fall in favor of sharing information with the public. After a period of adjustment lasting from months to a year or more, the American information system would incorporate open threat information into daily life, and the country would be more secure. People made confident by the ability to consume and respond to threat information will feel more secure, which is the other half of what security is all about.

And Good Riddance…

The Department of Homeland Security is scrapping the color-coded terror alert system. The color-code system meant to serve as a way of keeping the public informed, but because it signaled some ambiguous sense of “threat” without providing a scintilla of information the public could use, it merely kept Americans ignorant and addled.

Scrapping the color-coded threat system is only the beginning. The next step is to begin informing the public fully about threats and risks known to the U.S. government. We’re adults. We can handle it. In fact, we can help.