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The Muckraker

G.W. Schulz's Blog
G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | March 18, 2011

New trouble with terror grant funds uncovered in California


Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson at a press conference Feb. 1 announcing $7.5 million in federal funds handed to the city. Nearby is a bomb disposal robot commonly purchased with homeland security grants. Image: CalEMA

Federal auditors are once again raising questions about how California chose to spend hundreds of millions in federal homeland security grants awarded to the state for fighting terrorism and preparing for catastrophes after the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Investigators working for the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog inspector general say state oversight officials in California could have identified “poor investments” sooner and put a stop to certain purchases that cities made during later stages of the war on terror.

Instead, state workers often rubber-stamped grant applications from major cities and didn’t focus on the merit or value of a purchase, allowing critical needs to go unmet, according to a report made available March 15.

Several examples were cited.

A so-called “fusion center” used by police to collect threat information bought 55 big-screen digital TVs that it planned to use with a training system for employees. But the training system was never purchased, and when auditors showed up, all of the televisions were tuned to a single station.

Auditors also learned that one area of the state bought thousands of special suits designed to protect against dangerous chemical and biological substances, but practical consideration wasn’t given to the “limited” number of emergency responders that would actually need them. The suits were purchased to replace an existing stock due to expire.

The report says a training facility for emergency operations costing more than $2 million was “seldom used” in another area. Local officials elsewhere shelled out over $700,000 for computer software, but it was abandoned after the program “did not perform as well as the supplier indicated it would.” So a different software package carrying a price tag of $1.2 million had to be purchased instead.

The inspector general won’t mention offenders by name, making it a challenge to hold cities in California accountable or identify companies that profited from the meteoric rise in security spending after Sept. 11. Such reports are designed in part to improve how federal dollars are handled, and auditors list recommendations they hope will lead to the more responsible use of taxpayer cash.

As for the four-dozen fusion center TVs, they cost taxpayers almost $75,000, and auditors had this to say about them:

The center director told us televisions like these are a standard element in most fusion centers. However, without the training system, the original justification for purchasing the televisions was not valid.

Dozens of fusion centers were built nationwide following Sept. 11 for local, state and federal officials to analyze and share intelligence about possible terrorist or criminal threats. Congressional investigators said last year the federal government had spent $426 million supporting them with homeland security grants since 2004.

Matthew Bettenhausen, who recently departed as secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, or CalEMA, did not challenge the findings in a response letter to auditors dated Dec. 1. He promised the state would distribute guidance to cities “specifying the importance of efficient and cost effective use of grant funds.”

FEMA officials from the federal government provided their own answers in a separate letter, emphasizing that once the grants flow out of Washington, California becomes responsible “for all programmatic and fiduciary actions.” They say problems leading up to 2008 and beyond that were exposed by auditors in California “are historic, systemic and permeate the state,” according to the report.

A similarly critical assessment in 2009 of California’s grant spending found that during the earliest turbulent years of the war on terror, local communities purchased large-ticket items without requiring private suppliers to compete for taxpayer money, allowed a generator to sit unused for two years, and didn’t compile necessary documents to support millions of dollars worth of expenditures, among other things.

The latest report zeros in on just one federal grant program that singularly benefits major California cities and their surrounding areas. Known as the Urban Areas Security Initiative, the report says six designees raked in over $420 million between 2006 and 2008, the period of spending auditors examined. They are Anaheim/Santa Ana, San Diego, Sacramento, Riverside, Los Angeles/Long Beach and the San Francisco Bay Area.

An appendix in the report also lists local offices visited by the auditors, from the Sacramento Police Department to San Francisco’s bomb squad.

Auditors say that California is still signing sole-source contracts without competition and without providing justification. They pointed to millions in purchases as examples where federal procurement rules weren’t followed, among them public-safety radios, consulting contracts, “intelligence analysis” software and a $6.2 million license-plate reader system designed to notify police of stolen cars or outstanding warrants.

In fact, several jurisdictions were buying automated license-plate scanners costing over $6 million from a single supplier. Officials claimed they had to do so because the equipment relied on proprietary software, and in order for information to be shared with neighboring jurisdictions, “all users had to buy from the same manufacturer,” the report said.

Sole-source investments deny taxpayers “the full economic value of a competitive marketplace,” according to auditors, who added that no cost analysis was done to ensure prices were fair and reasonable in purchases they reviewed.

While state officials acknowledge this problem and have made some effort to correct it, we found little progress since the condition was originally reported.

In CalEMA’s response letter, Bettenhausen vowed that the state would give grant overseers the power to block sole-source purchases not approved in advance.

But there’s more. One urban area that bought a license-plate scanner system had not bothered to collect data on how many stolen vehicles were recovered or criminals were nabbed with the technology’s help, let alone compile evidence of how it contributed to the prevention or investigation of terrorist attacks. “Without clear performance measures,” the report said in general about the Urban Areas Security Initiative, “there was no assurance these funds were well spent.”

Next to New York, California is a leader in the sheer volume of homeland security grants it receives from Washington, and the state’s congressional delegation isn’t shy about complaining when FEMA proposes any reduction in the funds. States are eligible for a vast array of grants managed by FEMA, and overall the federal government had pumped $3 billion into California by 2009.

California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined numerous media partners across the state in 2009 to investigate homeland security grant spending. Based on an extensive review of available public records, the stories showed how several counties in California were struggling to responsibly manage the money as it poured out of the federal government. An interactive map was also made available that allowed readers to see how local officials were spending readiness grants.

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | February 24, 2011

Big Apple bonanza: $24 million in grants for NYPD overtime

New York City plans to use an eye-popping $24.3 million this year in federal homeland security grants just for paying overtime to its police department, money that’s generally set aside by Congress to help states battle terrorist threats and prepare for disasters. The multimillion-dollar line item is buried in local budget documents amid other expenditures for drug enforcement, organized crime investigations, urban search and rescue, port protection and more.

Officials in New York have fiercely defended their right to hundreds of millions in readiness grants since the Sept. 11 attacks, loudly condemning both George Bush and Barack Obama when each tried to scale back the large sums it receives over other states for homeland security.

Last summer, Big Apple politicians blasted White House plans to trim back two major federal grant programs, accusing the Obama administration of “mind-bogglingly bad judgment” and arguing that New York City faces the gravest risk of new assaults. It seemed unlikely much would change once Long Island’s noisy Republican congressman, Peter King, took over this year as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Sure enough, days before the White House released its budget for the 2012 fiscal year, King dispatched a letter to Obama recommending that the president keep New York City in mind as he determined how to slice up taxpayer money. The letter was co-signed by Democrat Nita Lowey of New York.

If Obama’s subsequent proposal is any indication, New York stands to earn hefty increases totaling more than $41 million in grant funds for the coming fiscal year. On the subject of overtime, King’s office provided Elevated Risk with this statement:

New York City remains the top target of al-Qaeda. Since 2001, [New York City] has been the target of at least 11 failed or foiled terror plots. Each year, New York spends hundreds of millions of dollars of its own funds on counterterrorism efforts.

A new report released Feb. 4 says Washington poured nearly $625 million into the state of New York between 2006 and 2008 across five major grants. States are eligible for much more money stuffed each year into a bewildering array of programs managed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Grants to New York have been used for everything from surveillance cameras, license-plate scanners and laptops to GPS devices, patrol boats and toxic-vapor analyzers. Despite uproar in the past over threatened cuts, local authorities don’t always deploy new gear with the utmost urgency.

Other investments made by New York threaten to duplicate the federal government’s existing war-on-terror responsibilities. The NYPD has its own sprawling intelligence division, complete with an “International Liaison Program” that boasts nearly a dozen offices around the globe and a team of civilian analysts hailing from finance, academia, law and even the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan.

Budget figures reportedly put the NYPD’s intelligence and counterterrorism spending at nearly $70 million every year, but the Washington Post’s resident expert on all-things-spook, Jeff Stein, says department brass won’t disclose whether that money is being used to station investigators in France, Britain, Spain and elsewhere. (During House testimony in 2005, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly cited a much higher figure for annual expenditures: $180 million.)

The liaison program enjoys only scant oversight, unlike everyday patrol officers who in many cities operate under the watchful eye of civilian panels that ensure police are enforcing the law responsibly. Intelligence committees on Capitol Hill, the CIA and the State Department, for their part, appear to exert very limited, if any, authority over NYPD personnel operating abroad, according to Stein:

That’s the problem, critics say, pointing to a half-dozen reported incidents of NYPD officers barging into the scenes of terrorist attacks in London, Mumbai, Madrid, Singapore and Jakarta, virtually impersonating U.S. counterterrorism agents and leaving local security officials confused, or worse, fuming.

Some are beginning to wonder if the steep price tag for security in New York will ever be enough. Is overtime an appropriate use of preparedness grants in the first place? We posed that question to officials at the NYPD and the Department of Homeland Security.

Unfortunately, the NYPD never got back to us. DHS provided only a brief prepared statement without explaining whether the agency was aware of New York’s outsized bill for overtime, or if the federal government specifically approved $24 million worth:

Backfill and overtime are allowable costs. Additionally, [the] NYPD has received approval for operational overtime expenses, and overtime for personnel to participate in information, investigative and intelligence-sharing activities.

The statement then refers to grant guidelines issued in 2010, which permit overtime for, among other things, personnel assigned to Joint Terrorism Task Forces, made up of both local officials and federal agents. Washington significantly expanded the JTTF program after Sept. 11.

Homeland security officials have nonetheless said during previous grant years that the anti-terrorism and readiness funds lawmakers began shelling out after Sept. 11 were meant more for planning and public-safety equipment. Specifically, the goal was to create new preparedness capabilities believed to be dangerously missing in cities across the country.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown announced in 2003 that he would use several million worth of grant funds to pay for policing demonstrations that broke out there after the Iraq War began. Brown claimed terrorists could use the protests as cover for attacks on high-profile destinations in San Francisco.

But one source at the time said it probably wouldn’t be allowed, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that the money was “not for overtime or operational costs.”

The center obtained documents last year showing that San Francisco managed to quietly push the expenditure through anyway, including thousands of dollars spent to feed police during the protests. One of the listed demonstrations occurred outside the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

State overseers responsible for how California handles homeland security grants continued to question San Francisco’s use of the money, arguing the protest costs weren’t related to “critical infrastructure protection.” They dropped the matter, however, after San Francisco produced a letter from California’s former homeland security chief, George Vinson, that authorized the spending.

Similar questions have surfaced in New York. Auditors there targeted $934,000 in personnel costs tied to routine patrols during an “orange” heightened alert period. The city of Buffalo tried to stick federal taxpayers with the bill, including salaries for a police chief, captain and local fire department employees. A report, however, said Buffalo would have incurred such costs “regardless of the terror alert level.” According to documents, officials resolved the matter by transferring the questioned expenditures to a “state-funded account.”

A former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, Matt Mayer, criticized federal preparedness grants earlier this month as “pork-barrel spending” by Congress. But in an email to CIR, he stopped short when asked about NYPD overtime: “NYC is well-and-above the number one threat city, so second-guessing them when I don’t have the intel would be pretty reckless.”

Disputes over homeland security cash presumably will continue as state and local governments face staggering budget shortfalls and seek to leave as many costs as possible on Washington’s doorstep.

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | February 23, 2011

Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Feb. 14-20


Flickr image courtesy Mark Pritchard

Investigators from the FBI want to know more about the foul odor emanating from a massive $45 million network of surveillance cameras in Chicago paid for with federal homeland security grants. Auditors were already examining the high-tech system known as Project Shield begun in 2004, and according to the Chicago Sun-Times, they found something “that sparked the FBI’s interest.”

Cook County officials have requested another $5 million for the project, but it was originally supposed to be finished by 2008 and cost much less: $31.5 million. Project Shield is now behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The equipment has also reportedly been plagued by technical problems. That and other issues have led some cities in the area not to take part in the joint effort.

A lawsuit filed last year alleges that a company one local official had a relationship with benefitted from the millions in federal preparedness grants he was responsible for helping to dole out. From an earlier Sun-Times story:

Project Shield was born out of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Federal grant money started pouring into Illinois to outfit suburban police cars with state-of-the-art cameras to feed live video back to a central command in times of an emergency. First responders would have eyes on the ground.

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Despite a brief outcry last Thanksgiving over the use of revealing, full-body scanners at airports, federal officials are moving forward with the purchase of nearly 300 more costing $77 million, or $280,000 each. That would bring the total deployed at airports nationwide to 1,275.

The Transportation Security Administration is testing software it says would enhance privacy for travelers by generating a cartoon-like outline of the individual scanned instead of a more intimate X-ray image.

According to the Homeland Security Newswire:

The DHS budget request also includes increased funding for behavioral detection officers at airports, who are trained to detect abnormal behavior in passengers before they arrive at checkpoints. The program will receive $237 million [for expansion] at large U.S. airports and [be extended] to some smaller airports. The expansion of the program comes despite a report released by the Government Accountability Office last year that called into question the efficacy of the program’s operational premise.

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Meanwhile, airport body scanners aren’t always successful at detecting even seemingly simple threats. That’s what an undercover investigator discovered in Dallas when she slipped her firearm through an X-ray scanner during testing, apparently on more than one occasion. A TSA source in Dallas told the NBC affiliate there that the tests were a “dismal failure.” Federal agents insisted that body scanners do work, “but only if the officers monitoring them are paying attention.”

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The federal government is going to “extraordinary lengths” in order to hide its relationship with a California computer programmer who promised that his whiz-bang technology could catch terrorists. After spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money, it appears those promises were a hoax.

New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau tell the story of Michael Montgomery, called a “con man” by his former lawyer. Montgomery’s patented software led to an international false alarm in 2003 that included an order by President Bush for airliners over the Atlantic Ocean to head back.

Justice Department officials have twice obtained protective orders shielding the government’s relationship with Montgomery from public view citing possible threats to national security. Sources interviewed by Lichtblau and Risen say the federal government is simply trying to avoid public embarrassment:

A onetime biomedical technician with a penchant for gambling, Mr. Montgomery is at the center of a tale that features terrorism scares, secret White House briefings, backing from prominent Republicans, backdoor deal-making and fantastic-sounding computer technology. … The software led to dead ends in connection with a 2006 terrorism plot in Britain. And they were used by counterterrorism officials to respond to a bogus Somali terrorism plot on the day of President Obama’s inauguration, according to previously undisclosed documents.

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | February 23, 2011

‘For official use only’ doc directs police to pipe down on Facebook


Flickr image courtesy Steve Mays

In February of 2009, Gary Waters went to court in Brooklyn, accused of possessing a loaded 9mm handgun and bundle of ammo while on parole for burglary. It looked like a simple case. But Waters escaped the charge. Why?

The NYPD officer named Vaughan Ettienne who arrested Waters had a MySpace persona defense attorneys seized on as evidence of his tendency toward police misconduct. Ettienne’s social-media profile allegedly described his mood as “devious,” and in a status update, he claimed to watch the movie “Training Day” for brushing up on “proper police procedure.”

The problem: “Training Day” is about violent and corrupt detectives in Los Angeles who wield bogus search warrants and deploy vigilante street justice. In other postings, Ettienne appeared to offer advice on how to assault detained suspects, according to the New York Times:

The man on trial claimed that Officer Ettienne and his partner stopped him, beat him and then planted a gun on him to justify breaking three of his ribs. Suddenly, Officer Ettienne was being held to the words that he wrote in cyberspace.

Law enforcement leaders don’t want such mistakes to be repeated. What’s interesting is how authorities are going about teaching cops to stay quiet online.

An intelligence memo marked “for official use only” that leaked onto the Internet earlier this month warns officers against such Internet blunders, informing them that criminal defense lawyers will use unsavory remarks as a strategy to spring their clients from custody, just like the Gary Waters case.

Noteworthy about the document is that it came from a so-called fusion center in the nation’s capitol region known as the Washington Regional Threat and Analysis Center. Over 70 fusion centers now exist nationwide, with some states having more than one. The federal government has pumped $426 million into them since 2004 through homeland security grants, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Motivated by the Sept. 11 hijackings, the initial goal of fusion centers was to stop attacks where possible before they occur by helping local and federal officials collect, analyze and share information about possible terrorist and criminal threats. They’ve since become increasingly involved in everyday law enforcement activities.

“Part of the problem with fusion centers is their lack of a distinct mission,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who later took the unlikely job of policy counsel for the ACLU. “If there was a specific security mission, it would be hard to write a memo like this.”

Perils of Social Networking

Civil libertarians are more concerned with fusion centers compiling vast oceans of personal information on Americans not suspected of committing any crimes. But the purpose of fusion centers isn’t always clear either, and now, it seems, they’re aiding police with the fundamentals of courtroom strategy, providing officers with arguably logical advice they should receive as cadets.

The bulletin points to examples of police raising questions about their own credibility with scandalous comments made on social-media sites. It instructs officers to think before they speak on the web:

In law enforcement work, there are no second chances when it comes to one’s integrity, and social network postings are available for the world to see and use, even when made in jest. So think through the significance and possible consequences of all postings before you hit the enter button and preserve them on a digital server for all of eternity.

Lingering is the question of whether rules against Facebook shenanigans could just as easily be handed down by police department superiors without the need for a sophisticated and expensive intelligence fusion center. That’s only if public officials need to be reminded in the first place that some activity online is simply a bad idea.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, which is attached to the Regional Threat and Analysis Center, did not return calls seeking comment. An official at the fusion center itself provided answers in an email, but after doing so, she insisted that her name not be used. Here’s what the email said:

In the past two years, police officers and intelligence personnel have been called out in the open media for inappropriate comments, photos and divulging sensitive homeland security and other information on social networking sites, which brought discredit to their agencies and compromised security protocols. Successful prosecution of crime and terrorism cases requires that government officials behave in a manner [that] does not impeach their integrity or the integrity of their agency. This bulletin is a reminder to officers who investigate and arrest persons for crime and terrorism that integrity is important on-and-off duty.

In a bid to assure the public that fusion centers are contributing meaningfully to the war on terror, the Department of Homeland Security this month released a list of “success stories.” Among the examples cited, several fusion centers coordinated their efforts to produce information on a suspicious trailer headed toward Times Square. It turned out to be a false alarm, however.

In another instance, fusion center officials in Florida conducted database checks on two Egyptians ultimately accused of transporting explosives without permits. One was sentenced in 2008 to 15 years in prison after he pled guilty to supporting terrorism.

 

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | February 16, 2011

Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Feb. 7-13


Flickr image courtesy Jonathan Dresner

Homeland security experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation have warned against allowing anti-terrorism and preparedness grants, handed to states by the billions after Sept. 11, to become “another federal entitlement program.”

Jena Baker McNeill, a policy analyst, and Matt Mayer, formerly an official responsible for grants at the Department of Homeland Security, argued in an issue paper released by the foundation this month that the funds have “done little to contribute to readiness and instead have served as another avenue for pork-barrel spending in Congress.”

As the amount shoveled to states through grant programs for fighting terrorists and catastrophes approaches $40 billion, the pair wants to know when Washington has spent enough or local officials have reached a stage where they can absorb much more of the costs on their own.

Each year that passes, however, means constituents become better at lobbying for additional cash from lawmakers who face reelection. Commentator Josh Filler argued in Emergency Management magazine Feb. 14 that local governments should create what amounts to a new special-interest group, the National Homeland Security Association, for ensuring “that the voices of the urban areas, states and other homeland security officials are heard in the federal policy and budget-making process.”

But Mayer and McNeill say the Department of Homeland Security still doesn't know what new preparedness capabilities states have built as a result of the money, making it difficult to determine when the spigot should be turned off:

What DHS has lacked in grant program accountability, Congress has made up for in politics. Members have routinely used grant dollars directed at their own particular jurisdictions as a way to win votes. … The nation cannot afford to waste scarce homeland security funds on unnecessary capabilities. It is incumbent upon policymakers to begin fixing this broken system.

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Yet another city has announced plans to significantly expand the number of video cameras accessible by law enforcement for surveillance purposes. Cameras aren’t a new story, of course. But recent developments in digital surveillance mark a turn that many corners of the United States haven't witnessed until now.

Authorities want to integrate existing public cameras they already control with thousands more deployed by private businesses, all for viewing in a single center. Last week it was Washington, D.C. This week it’s Atlanta, where officials are using homeland security grants and other funds to construct a special facility for piping in surveillance images. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

[David Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation,] said the center will use software that can identify suspicious activity and guide officers right to the scene of a crime as it’s occurring. In effect, the software will multiply the eyes and ears of the five to seven people per shift who will initially monitor video footage around the clock. ‘Monitoring is somewhat of a fallacy,’ Wilkinson said. ‘Analytics will help control the cameras.’

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An early pioneer of massive integrated camera systems similar to what Atlanta wants is Chicago, and there, civil libertarians are resisting the concept. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois wants the city’s “Operation Virtual Shield,” also funded with homeland security grants, halted until new restrictions that safeguard privacy are written up on the use of cameras. The advocacy group says modern technology has made the cameras more of an invasive threat.

According to Government Security News:

The Chicago cameras have zoom capacity allowing operators to see small objects and features at great distances and at many times their normal size. They are also equipped with facial recognition capabilities that enable computers to automatically search for a particular person’s face.

The ACLU argues Chicago doesn’t have adequate guidelines governing how such technologies are used to observe citizens in public spaces.

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Democratic staffers in the House are complaining that massive cuts in federal spending planned by the GOP “could reduce federal and state capabilities to secure the nation against terrorist and other catastrophic threats.”

A bill prepared by Republican Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio would shave more than $10 billion off the Department of Homeland Security’s budget in 2012 alone, according to a report from Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee.

It concludes that, among other things. reductions would harm the ability of immigration agents to deport illegal border crossers, force the Coast Guard to rely on aging ships and aircraft and undermine the purchase of new screening technologies by the Transportation Security Administration.

The proposed bill would also notably yank $900 million out of the readiness grants DHS makes available to state and local governments. That, according to the report, “would reverse great strides state and local governments have made in enhancing preparedness and response capabilities.”

Heritage’s aforementioned issue paper directly challenges the claims. Mayer and McNeill say House Democrats “should spend less time trying to score political points and more time trying to identify possible homeland security spending cuts.” From Heritage:

If Congress is serious about fiscal responsibility and the ability of state and local governments to respond effectively to threats, it should reassess the current grant structure and spend federal dollars exclusively on projects that actually make America more prepared.

 

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | February 10, 2011

Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Jan. 31-Feb. 6


Flickr image courtesy Christop Brooks-Booth

Sorry, folks. We had to put Security Digest on hold for a moment to do some travelling and catch up on other work. But we’re back with a hearty list of headlines.

Following months of complaining and demands from Congress, the Department of Homeland Security has begun testing new software for full-body airport scanners designed to permit travelers greater privacy protections. The devices see underneath clothing, unlike traditional metal detectors, and that’s led critics to deride them as “porno scanners” and “virtual strip searches.”

Airport screeners using the updated software would now see only the outline of a human form and an alert if something suspicious turned up on the traveler’s body. It's now being tried out in Las Vegas.

Republican Susan Collins of Maine, ranking member of the Senate’s homeland security committee, asked the Transportation Security Administration months ago about similar technology being used in Amsterdam that avoided radiation exposure from X-rays and enhanced privacy for fliers.

On the House side, Democrat Bennie Thompson commended the TSA for continuing to improve aviation security but added in a Feb. 1 statement, “we must also continue to protect the privacy of the flying public."

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Elsewhere in the land of transportation security, conspiracy theorist and former body wrestler Jesse Ventura is suing the federal government claiming that airport X-ray scanners and physical pat-downs violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The one-time Minnesota governor had his hip replaced in 2008, and a titanium implant continually set off metal detectors when he travelled. Before the TSA instituted new screening practices last year, Ventura says that airport screeners simply used hand-held wands to scan him as an additional security measure, according to MSNBC:

But when Ventura set off the metal detector in November, he was instead subjected to a body pat-down and was not given the option of a scan with a hand-held wand or an exemption for being a frequent traveler, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit said the pat-down “exposed him to humiliation and degradation through unwanted touching, gripping and rubbing of the intimate areas of his body.”

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Officials in Washington, D.C. plan to dramatically expand an existing network of surveillance cameras, adding digital eyes from private businesses such as banks, gas stations and small food marts. The images will feed into an all-hazards operation center, where personnel already monitor 4,500 cameras 24 hours a day.

From the Washington Examiner:

When it started in spring 2008, the program immediately met resistance from the [D.C. city council]. Some council members worried that the closed-circuit television system was put together too quickly and without consideration for how effective it would be in reducing crime or preventing terrorism.

Records we obtained recently show the nation’s capitol region has budgeted millions of dollars in recent years for cameras and related equipment using federal homeland security grants, including “real-time bus onboard video surveillance” and “intelligent closed-circuit television.”

Security camera technology does much more today than simply capture images. It’s capable of recognizing faces, alerting security to suspicious bags or packages and allowing targeted searches across hours of footage.

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Questions are already being raised about the federal government’s new strategy for alerting citizens to possible terrorist threats. After years of ridicule from critics who dismissed as useless the color-coded terror alerts favored by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the feds finally decided last month to abandon it and unveil a different approach.

Obama’s homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, says the government will use more detailed, colorless alerts involving specific threats. One major difference is that the threat level will be forced downward within a pre-determined period of time depending on the availability of credible intelligence.

The Hill newspaper, however, says some experts remain skeptical. That’s in part because officials will still have to balance keeping certain classified information about terrorist threats a secret and providing the public with enough useful direction as possible. Plus, any advisory system has the potential to excessively alarm the public.

Here’s what Heritage Foundation policy analyst Jena Baker McNeill told The Hill:

“There’s a lot of desire among people to know what we’re facing. I mean we talk about that but a lot of times we don’t really communicate it to the public in a way that means something to them.”

Added Eric Dietz, director of Purdue’s Homeland Security Institute:

“The challenge is that when we over-alarm the public and we get more information than we can handle and chase down, then we look as equally ineffective with too much information as we did with too little.”

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More accusations are surfacing that the FBI’s “strong-arm” tactics for catching terrorists have gone too far. This time, St. Louis residents of Somali descent – in particular, cab drivers at the city’s airport – say they’ve been grilled by FBI agents with questions and asked to turn over the contents of their cell phones and computers. An FBI spokeswoman conceded that the bureau’s outreach to Somalis “is not at the level we would like it to be.” According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Jim Hacking III, a legal consultant to the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, believes that trust is fading. Hacking once worked closely with the FBI in its outreach efforts to Muslims. When the FBI put out a bulletin that warned al-Shabaab [the extremist group] might try an attack in the U.S. timed to the presidential inauguration, Hacking helped the FBI with a request to locate several local Somalis. … 'I take the position now, you're a fool to talk to the FBI without an attorney,' he said. 'I recognize they have a difficult job to do. I just think the way they are doing it is backwards. You can't build bridges at the same time you're scaring … people.'

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | January 18, 2011

Is Wikileaks driving Bank of America to seize domains?


Flickr image courtesy Shannon Clark

A little-known company that specializes in protecting the public image and product identity of Fortune 500 companies is quietly buying up hundreds of domain names that could be used to host online criticism of the mammoth financial services outfit Bank of America.

Tools like Whois.net allow the public to search web addresses and see who’s paying to control them, unless the buyer used a go-between, which many corporations do. While Cironline.org, for instance, is clearly registered to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the site Nike.com is listed under MarkMonitor, Inc., rather than the apparel conglomerate’s name.

MarkMonitor is a consultancy of sorts that helps multinational corporations safeguard their interests on the Internet by, among other things, “using defensive domain registration to block others from exploiting domain names associated with your brand,” according to its website.

This is exactly what MarkMonitor appears to be doing for Bank of America, snapping up more than 400 domain names (such as brianmoynihansucks.com) in recent weeks that could feasibly be used as destinations for leveling hatred at the company. Notably the list of domains doesn’t center on Bank of America as much as it does senior executives and board members, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently.

Why the sudden burst in apparent pre-emptive action? One theory is that Bank of America is bracing for a fresh release of documents from the anti-secrecy site Wikileaks. Founder Julian Assange claims that a pile of confidential records from the computer hard drive of a top bank executive fell into his hands, and it’s only a matter of time before they become public.

Assange told Forbes magazine in November that Wikileaks “could take down a bank or two,” and Computer World reported all the way back in 2009 that Wikileaks had digital documents specifically from Bank of America, as much as five gigs worth.

While the bank’s fingerprints don’t appear directly on the newly registered domain names, it seems next to impossible Bank of America had no role in the purchases. Take Brianmoynihanblows.com, Briantmoynihansucks.com, Catherinepbessantblows.org and Charleshollidayjrsucks.com. Brian T. Moynihan is Bank of America’s CEO. Catherine P. Bessant is its global technology and operations executive. Charles Holliday is chairman of the bank’s board. The unflattering domain names were registered by MarkMonitor on the same day, Dec. 17, 2010.

A BofA spokesman insisted to the New York Times recently that the domain registrations were not, in fact, associated with fears of a new document dump from Wikileaks. No other explanation for the timing was offered.

It’s still not 100 percent clear that the pending release has to do with Bank of America, but the company isn’t taking any chances. The mere possibility that leaked records could damage BofA has led to a dip in its share price. As a precaution, executives assembled an internal crew to prepare for potential fallout. Their efforts include examining records tied to Bank of America’s $50 billion merger in 2008 with Merrill Lynch, a deal struck to save the latter from unprecedented market turmoil. The team’s goal in part is to isolate “undisclosed documents that could embarrass the company,” according to a Jan. 2 Times story:

In addition to the Merrill documents, the team is reviewing material on Bank of America’s disastrous acquisition in 2008 of Countrywide Financial, the subprime mortgage specialist, [bank] officials said. The criticism of Bank of America’s foreclosure procedures centers mostly on loans it acquired in the Countrywide deal, and one possibility is that the documents could show unscrupulous or fraudulent lending practices by Countrywide.

Domain Name Wire, an Internet trade publication, first discovered the purchases of embarrassing, anti-BofA domain names. A bank activist at the Center for Media and Democracy in Wisconsin, Mary Bottari, noticed that one major domain name had yet to be purchased: Breakupbankofamerica.com. So she bought it.

Bottari speculates that the potential document release could contain any number of things. Among them, she says, might be emails showing that executives knew they had endorsed toxic mortgage-backed securities for investors in recent years.

Or there could be revelations about Bank of America’s foreclosure practices, Bottari says, which have drawn criticism as families were ejected from their homes. They could also discuss questionably timed bonuses for Merrill executives awarded as Bank of America was receiving a massive loan from taxpayers to encourage the deal with Merrill.

It’s not uncommon for major corporations to use “defensive domain registration” as a strategy for controlling online activity (Jcrewsucks.com and Xeroxsucks.com are both taken). Purchasing hundreds of such highly specific domain names, however, suggests Bank of America is concerned the company’s image will fall under scrutiny soon. While the public waits for more news, Insidebankofamerica.com is still available.

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | January 18, 2011

SBInet is dead, but don't expect an end to costly border surveillance

An observation tower on the Arizona border.
Image: Tom Cool

After months of inaction and hundreds of millions in taxpayer money handed over to defense giant Boeing Co., federal officials have chosen to give up on a troubled border surveillance initiative known as the “virtual fence,” or SBInet.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pulled $50 million in economic stimulus funds out from under the program last March complaining that SBInet – first unveiled by her predecessor, Michael Chertoff, during a November 2005 speech in Houston – had been “plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines.”

She ordered an internal review of the program, but a significant amount of time passed before the Obama administration made any meaningful decisions that spelled the official end of SBInet. Congress was first told the ambitious network of surveillance cameras, radars and sensors would cover the nation’s nearly 2,000-mile southwest border with Mexico by 2009.

Operating together, the devices were supposed to alert patrol officers as illegal border crossers attempted to enter the country and dramatically expand the area of land that watchers could effectively secure. Instead, Napolitano conceded in a recent statement that SBInet “does not meet current standards for viability and cost effectiveness.”

DHS will reportedly continue to use some portions of the project, such as radar and sensor towers, but as of now the technology covers little over 50 miles of Arizona’s border. SBInet’s executive director, Mark Borkowski, told Congress last spring that Boeing had earned about $615 million from SBInet by that time.

Boeing said in a statement referring to DHS “we appreciate that they recognize the value of the integrated fixed towers Boeing has built, tested and delivered so far,” according to the Wall Street Journal. It also said Boeing “remains committed to providing valuable solutions and supporting DHS.”

The latest reports, however, do not mean U.S. taxpayers will cease pouring money into high-tech border surveillance, despite years of shaky attempts that began during the Clinton administration with a program called the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, or ISIS. Elevated Risk reported in October that the defense mega-contractor Raytheon Co. was already lining up to offer its own presumably pricey alternative.

Raytheon showcased a product similar to SBInet that its calling Clear View at a conference last year attended by thousands of security industry professionals and government officials where Raytheon worked to contrast itself with Boeing. Raytheon lost an earlier bid for the project in 2006.

A newer approach to border surveillance described by Napolitano, meanwhile, could still cost upwards of $750 million to cover the remainder of Arizona’s border. When Napolitano announced the removal of Recovery Act dollars from SBInet, she vowed that the tens of millions would instead be used for an array of mobile surveillance equipment, cameras, radios for communicating, laptops and more.


Flickr image of Border Patrol aircraft courtesy Dan Sorensen.

FLIR Systems of Portland, Ore., revealed this month it had received a contract valued at more than $100 million from Customs and Border Protection for new gear, including long-range thermal imaging cameras affixed to vehicle-mounted towers and capable of use day or night.

The federal government has also inked agreements with American Science & Engineering of Massachusetts for dozens of vehicle X-ray scanners that operate similar to airport body imagers by exposing the contents of passing vehicles without requiring a physical search inside, as Elevated Risk reported last September. One of those pacts involves $19 million worth of economic stimulus funds.

As for SBInet, members of Congress responsible for overseeing the Department of Homeland Security seized on the latest development releasing a flurry of press statements. Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said SBInet’s “one-size-fits-all approach was unrealistic.”

Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, called the program “a grave and expensive disappointment from its inception.”

New York’s Peter King, a Republican who recently took Thompson’s committee chair, said he understood the decision to shut down SBInet, but he also condemned Obama’s “lack of urgency to secure the border.”

News first surfaced in October that DHS would not continue its contract with Boeing and that SBInet could ultimately be halted altogether.

A string of negative reviews from congressional investigators at the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog inspector general have haunted SBInet throughout its lifetime. An October report from the GAO said poor contractor oversight was a “major contributor to the program’s well-chronicled history of not delivering promised system capabilities on time and on budget.”

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | January 18, 2011

Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Jan. 10-16


Flickr image of Miami skyline courtesy Xynn Tii

For many military technologies deployed in war zones around the world, it’s only a matter of time before they end up in the hands of local police here, from fingerprint and iris scanners to assault rifles and armored trucks. Americans could be forgiven if they assumed pilotless drones were an exception, but they’d be wrong. Local cops want those, too.

Drones are already used on the southwest border, but for many Americans the border feels like a world away, its own sort of distant battlefield. The aircraft may now be headed for a major urban center, Miami, if the police department there gets its way. The Miami-Dade Police Department in 2009 picked up a pair of T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicles built by the defense contractor Honeywell International based on work begun at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aka DARPA.

That’s according to Talking Points Memo, which writes that department officials have been testing and training on the equipment since then. Miami is now working toward approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and argues that the drones, commonly equipped with a camera for surveillance and reconnaissance, will help ensure officer safety by keeping them out of helicopters. T-Hawks can also rapidly transmit overhead information to commanders at the scene of a major event, another justification cited by Miami police, according to TPM.

We should point out as TPM did that T-Hawks are far smaller than higher-profile Predator drones being used to kill militants in places like Pakistan. A Miami police sergeant told TPM that T-Hawks resemble a “small office garbage can” in size. They don’t carry weapons, either.

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Modern technology has overshadowed a law enacted in 1986 to protect the privacy rights of Americans when they communicate, and police are seeking from Internet companies personal data that belongs to consumers tens of thousands of times every year without clear rules governing their requests.

The New York Times reports that such electronic information – including photos, emails, cell-phone messages and more – has become an attractive target for law enforcement investigators. The story followed reports that the Justice Department wanted Twitter to turn over user information for customers connected to the anti-secrecy site Wikileaks. According to the Times:

Last year, the Justice Department argued in court that cell phone users had given up the expectation of privacy about their location by voluntarily giving that information to carriers. In April, it argued in a federal court in Colorado that it ought to have access to some emails without a search warrant. And federal law enforcement officials, citing technology advances, plan to ask for new regulations that would smooth their ability to perform legal wiretaps of various Internet communications.

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A leading voice on Internet privacy, Ryan Singel of Wired magazine’s Threat Level blog, argued Jan. 10 that Twitter made the right decision reacting to the Justice Department’s request for user data tied to Wikileaks and its release of confidential U.S. government documents.

Twitter faced a gag order that would have prevented the company from discussing with anyone the government’s demand for customer data. But Twitter fought back and won the right to notify targeted users that the government was seeking their information, including email and IP addresses, thereby giving them a chance to challenge the data requests themselves:

That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow. … Even more remarkable, Twitter’s move comes as a litany of companies, including PayPal, MasterCard, Visa, and Bank of America, follow the political winds away from the First Amendment, banning donations to Wikileaks. And Amazon.com voluntarily threw the site off its hosting platform, even though there’s nothing illegal in publishing classified documents.

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Tests designed to gauge the performance of expensive high-tech radiation detectors weren’t conducted properly, impacting the ability of officials at the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to draw reliable conclusions from them.

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences says the DNDO, housed in the Department of Homeland Security, also cast the test results “in ways that are incorrect and potentially misleading,” according to the Washington Post:

The report echoes allegations that surfaced in debates about one of the George W. Bush administration’s top national security initiatives. In 2006, Congress approved $1.2 billion for the machines. The program stalled after Government Accountability Office auditors accused the DNDO of playing down the costs, overstating the benefits and providing misleading information to Congress.

(Full disclosure: Post report Robert O’Harrow, who wrote the story, is a CIR advisor.)

A physicist and former University of California president in charge of the report said he believed DNDO “rushed it.”

G.W. Schulz | Update: Elevated Risk | January 18, 2011

Follow CIR's live tweets tonight during Frontline premiere!

So, yeah, we know. It's a little nerdy to live tweet a PBS documentary. But here at your favorite homeland security blog, Elevated Risk, we're thrilled to see the final product of PBS Frontline's "Are We Safer?" Months of work conducted by journalists at the Washington Post started with a desire to examine the explosion of privatized domestic intelligence work and homeland security spending after Sept. 11.

The reporting team includes Dana Priest, a Pulitzer winner and force behind exposure of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program. She also authored a book in 2003 called "The Mission" on the use of special forces, which became a Pulitzer finalist. It's a must-read for students of this subject.

(Her colleague at the Post, Robert O'Harrow, also an advisor to the Center for Investigative Reporting, published another essential book on privacy and surveillance with help from the center in 2005 called "No Place to Hide.")

Multiple stories have already appeared as part of her more recent Post series entitled "Top Secret America." Tonight's Frontline episode is a televised package of their work so far. We'll be live tweeting additional insights, documents and links using the handle @GWSchulzCIR. We've been exploring many of the same issues at CIR.

Frontline will also separately be airing another story, "Flying Cheaper," on major airlines outsourcing maintenance work to foreign countries. The House Homeland Security Committee held a related hearing in late 2009. It may provide useful background. See you tonight!