My Washington Examiner column this week focuses on an important new study from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK): "Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities." If you've read any of the ample media coverage the report's received, you may have heard that DHS grants have gone toward 13 sno-cone machines for terror-warriors in Michigan, a latrine on wheels for Fort Worth, Texas, a $100,000 underwater robot for Columbus, Ohio, and a Halloween "zombie apocalypse" demonstration at a swank resort outside San Diego.
But, as I argue in the Examiner,
the media focus on "waste, fraud, and abuse" misses a graver problem with DHS's decade-long spending spree. Sno-cone machines and "zombie apocalypse" parties aren't the worst things DHS is underwriting. We ought to worry more about the proliferation of surveillance cameras, mobile biometric scanners, armored personnel carriers and police drones.
The useless projects DHS funds are far less troubling than the ones that can be used to harm Americans' privacy and liberty—and Coburn's report is replete with examples of the latter.
Just today the Daily noted another troubling DHS project: "Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers.... Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus." The Daily notes, unsurprisingly, "In San Francisco, the Department of Homeland Security is funding the entire cost with a grant."
It's a mistake to look at DHS grants simply through the prism of government waste—as if what's going on here is of a piece with $500 toilet seats and bridges to nowhere. The costs of this unthinking slide toward a militarized, high-tech Idiocracy can't be measured in budgetary terms alone.
More highlights from Coburn’s report after the jump:
It turns out that a New York Police Department program that assembled large databases on the ordinary activities of innocent Muslims, infiltrated student groups, and monitored sermons wasn't just controversial—it was useless. As the Associated Press reports, the head of the NYPD's Intelligence Division recently confirmed in a deposition that the Department's "Demographics Unit"—a delightful euphemism for a team dedicated to spying predicated wholly on ethnicity, language, and religion—turned up no useful leads and gave rise to no terrorism investigations in its six years of operation.
At the risk of being a broken record, this is a reminder of how misleading it can be to discuss these topics under the rubric of "balancing liberty and security." If government surveillance performs as advertised and yields a substantial security benefit, there's a debate to be had over how much government intrusion we're prepared to countenance as the price of that security. But that security benefit has to be proven, not assumed. If it can't be demonstrated—and a fortiori, if all available evidence demonstrates there is no benefit—then it just should not be a serious question in a decent society whether it's acceptable for police to keep tabs on all Urdu-speakers of Pakistani origin on the premise (endorsed by this official) that "most" of them are people "of concern" to the government. Just to put that "most" in context: There are some 15 million Pakistani Urdu-speakers worldwide, and about 50,000 legal residents of Pakistani descent in the New York metro area. Treating them all, by default, as potential terrorists who need to be watched would be offensive and ugly even if the policy occasionally yielded a useful piece of information. But to squander scarce law enforcement resources targeting a minority population without any useful results over six years? How can that be anything but obscene?
The NYC/Denver terrorism investigation has Andy McCarthy all riled up.
In this article at National Review, McCarthy says that the risks associated with terrorism require a domestic preventive detention regime where investigators can go to a court with something less than probable cause and detain individuals without charge until they can gather the evidence for an indictment.
This is a pretty bold proposition, given the fact that he lays out in this post on The Corner the power that investigators already have to detain material witnesses while gathering evidence. Not to mention the power to detain allegedly dangerous individuals picked up on relatively minor charges such as lying to federal agents, the current disposition of the NYC/Denver suspects.
Then McCarthy comes full circle in this post, claiming that if this is the fault of a “law enforcement” mindset in counterterrorism, it may be time to consider a domestic intelligence agency akin to Britain’s MI-5. He also blasts the use of non-coercive interrogation “that the Left insists are just as reliable in a ticking-bomb situation as the CIA's coercive methods.”
There are several problems with this take on domestic counterterrorism.
The first is that the decision to involve a New York imam in the investigation, a step that compromised the operation and forced investigators to make early arrests before all of the co-conspirators could be identified, was made by an intelligence organization, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division. This is not the cops of the Counterterrorism Bureau, the law enforcement officers that work with the FBI in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but a separate intelligence department run by a former CIA official who is openly hostile to the Bureau. The same type of folks that McCarthy wants to put in charge of domestic counterterrorism.
Second, McCarthy’s plug for coercive interrogation is the path advocated in the early years of the Bush administration. This has the deleterious effect (beyond statutory bans on torture and constitutional rights prohibiting the same) of making anything you get from the “third degree” inadmissible in court. To get around this you would have to ask courts to generate a doctrine that allows for evidence collected as a result of coercive interrogation to be admitted in spite of clear constitutional violations. I don’t see any way that this does not seep into general law enforcement, where any potential future crime justifies beating information or confessions out of suspects. This is rolling back civil liberties a hundred years or so.
Third, a domestic prevention regime is destined to run into the problems that the British encountered in Northern Ireland. IRA detainees that were subjected to “special interrogation techniques” and held without charge staged a hunger strike to protest being treated as criminals instead of detainees; their jailers had taken away their civilian clothes and made them wear prison uniforms. As former FBI Agent and counterterrorism expert Mike German says in his book, Thinking Like a Terrorist:
The reasons for the hunger strike reveal much about the IRA and about terrorists in general. They didn’t strike over the anti-Catholic discrimination that led to the civil rights movement. They didn’t strike over the RUC’s police abuse or the stationing of British troops in Northern Ireland. They didn’t strike over being arrested without charges, interned, and tortured. They didn’t strike over indefinite detentions or even over Bloody Sunday. They knew all those things helped their cause. They went on hunger strike because the British government was going to make them look like criminals.
If you fear Islamic terrorists, let investigators do their job and find the people who would harm the public. This is a problem that will be solved over decades of diligent investigation, sitting on wiretaps, infiltrating cells, and prosecuting dangerous people. Distorting the domestic criminal justice system out of hysteria over potential attacks will make martyrs out of detainees and torture victims and encourage a broader spectrum of people to violence.
Back on March 29th, Campaign for Liberty employee Steven Bierfeldt was leaving the Campaign's regional conference in St. Louis, Missouri. He was carrying $4700 in cash donations and Campaign for Liberty and Ron Paul literature. TSA personnel at the St. Louis airport felt that carrying this amount of cash was "suspicious" and detained him for interrogation. The TSA personnel intended to take Bierfeldt to the local police station for further questioning after he refused to answer the questions associated with their fishing expedition. Luckily, a plainclothes officer arrived and spoke briefly with one of the TSA officers, who told Bierfeldt that he was free to go.
Bierfeldt is now filing suit against Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. The ACLU Blog of Rights has more on the suit, including a digital copy of the complaint. Filing suit to prove that "[c]arrying $4700 in cash poses no conceivable threat to flight safety" is a sign that airport screening is going too far.
Bierfeldt was right to be wary of airport screening while carrying Ron Paul and Campaign for Liberty literature. The Missouri Information Analysis Center, one of 70+ "fusion centers" in the nation, had just released its report on domestic terrorism and the militia movement. Libertarians are expressly targeted as potential domestic terrorists:
Political Paraphernalia: Militia members most commonly associate with 3rd party political groups. It is not uncommon for militia members to display Constitutional Party, Campaign for Liberty, or Libertarian material. These members are usually supporters of former Presidential Candidate: Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin, and Bob Barr.
Cato recently held a forum on this phenomenon, Fusion Centers: Domestic Spying or Sensible Surveillance? My colleague Tim Lynch hosted, and panelists included Bruce Fein, Constitutional Attorney, The Lichfield Group; Harvey Eisenberg, Chief, National Security Section, Office of United States Attorney, District of Maryland; and Michael German, Policy Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union. Audio and video are available at the link.
Mike German has written extensively on this topic. Read his November 2007 report, What's Wrong with Fusion Centers and July 2008 update. Mike is a former FBI agent and author of the excellent book, Thinking Like a Terrorist.
You can watch Mr. Bierfeldt giving his side of the story to Judge Andrew Napolitano (no relation to Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano) on Fox's Freedom Watch.
Judge Napolitano recently spoke at the Cato book forum, Dred Scott's Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America. Co-panelists included my colleague Jason Kuznicki and Reason's Damon Root.