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How to Fund an American Police State

As homeland security budgets grow, civil liberties wither.

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 3:53 PM EST

In 2010, the Office of Management and Budget reckoned that 31 separate federal agencies were involved in homeland security-related funding that year to the tune of more than $65 billion. The Census Bureau, which has itself been compromised by War on Terror activities—mapping Middle Eastern and Muslim communities for counter-terrorism officials—estimated that federal homeland security funding topped $70 billion in 2010. But government officials acknowledge that much funding is not included in that compilation. (Grants made through the $5.6 billion Project BioShield, to offer but one example, an exotic vaccination and medical program launched in 2004, are absent from the total.)

Even the estimate of more than $635 billion in such expenditures does not tell the full spending story. That figure does not include the national intelligence or military intelligence budgets for which the Obama Administration is seeking $52.6 billion and $19.6 billion respectively in 2013, or secret parts of the national security budget, the so-called black budget.

Local funding is also unaccounted for. New York's Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly claims total national homeland security spending could easily be near a trillion dollars. Money well spent, he says—New York needs that anti-terror army, the thousands of surveillance cameras, those sophisticated new weapons, and, naturally, a navy that now includes six drone submarines (thanks to $540,000 in Homeland Security cash) to keep an eye on the terrorist threat beneath the waves.

And even that's not enough.

"We have a new boat on order," Kelly said recently, alluding to a bullet-proof vessel paid for by, yes, Homeland Security (cost unspecified). "We envision a situation where we may have to get to an island or across water quickly, so we're able to transport our heavy weapons officers rapidly. We have to do things differently. We know that this is where terrorists want to come."

With submarines available to those who protect and serve (and grab the grant money), a simple armored SWAT carrier should hardly raise an eyebrow. The Tampa police will get one as part of their security buildup before the city hosts the Republican convention this summer. Tampa and Charlotte, which will host the Democratic convention, each received special $50 million security allocations from Congress to "harden" the cities.

Marc Hamlin, Tampa's assistant police chief, told the Tampa city council that two old tanks, already owned and operated by the police, were simply not enough. They were just too unreliable. "Thank God we have two, because one seems to break down every week," he lamented.

Not everyone on the council seemed convinced Tampa needed a truck sheathed in 1.5-inch high-grade steel, and featuring ballistic glass panels, blast shields, and powered turrets. City Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern claimed she found the purchase "kind of troubling," a sign that Tampa is becoming "militarized." Then she voted to approve it anyway, along with the other council members. Hamlin was pleased. "It's one of those things where you prepare for the worst, and you hope for the best," he explained.

When Mulhern suggested that some of the windfall $50 million might be used to help the city's growing homeless population, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn set her straight. "We can't be diverted from what the appropriate use of that money is, and that is to provide a safe environment for the convention. It's not to be used for pet projects or things totally unrelated to security."

Tampa will also be spending more than $1 million for state of the art digital video uplinks to surveillance helicopters. ("Analog technology is almost Stone Age," commented one approving council member.) Another $2 million will go to install 60 surveillance cameras on city streets. That represents an uncharacteristic pullback from the city's initial plan to acquire more than 230 cameras as well as two drones at a cost of about $5 million. Even the police deemed that too expensive—for the moment.

All of this hardware will remain in Tampa after the Republicans and any protestors are long gone. What use will it serve then? In the Tampa area, the armored truck will join the armored fleet, police officials said, ferrying SWAT teams on calls and protecting police serving search warrants. In the past, Hamlin claimed, Tampa's tanks have been shot at. He did not mention that crime rates in Tampa and across Florida are at four-decade lows.

The video surveillance cameras will, of course, also stay in place, streaming digitized images to an ever-growing database, where they will be stored waiting for the day when facial recognition software is employed to mix and match. This strategy is being followed all over the country, including in Chicago, with its huge video surveillance network, and New York City, where all of lower Manhattan is now on camera.

Tampa has already been down this road once in the post-9/11 era. The city was home to a much-watched experiment in using such software. Images taken by cameras installed on the street were to be matched with photographs in a database of suspects. The system failed completely and was scrapped in 2003. On the other hand, sheriffs in the Tampa Bay area are currently using facial recognition software to match photographs snapped by police on the street with a database of suspects with outstanding warrants. Police are excited by that program and look forward to its future expansion.

 

 

The Rise of the Fusion Centers

Homeland Security has played a big role in creating one particularly potent element in the nation's expanding database network. Working with the Department of Justice in the wake of 9/11, it launched what has grown into 72 interlinked state "fusion centers"—repositories for everything from Immigration Customs Enforcement data and photographs to local police reports and even gossip. "Suspicious Activity Reports" gathered from public tipsters—thanks to Homeland Security's "if you see something, say something" program—are now flowing into state centers. Those fusion centers are possibly the greatest facilitators of dish in history, and have vast potential for disseminating dubious information and stigmatizing purely political activity. And most Americans have never even heard of them.

Yet fusion centers now operate in every state, centralizing intelligence gathering and facilitating dissemination of material of every sort across the country. Here is where information gathered by cops and citizens, FBI agents and immigration officers goes to fester. It is a staggering load of data, unevenly and sometimes questionably vetted, and it is ultimately available to any state or local law-enforcement officer, any immigration agent or official, any intelligence or security bureaucrat with a computer and network access.

The idea for these centers grew from the notion that agencies needed to share what they knew in an "unfettered" environment. How comforting to know that the walls between intelligence and law enforcement are breached in an essentially unregulated fashion.

Many other states have monitored antiwar activists, gathering and storing names and information. Texas and other states have stored "intelligence" on Muslims. Pennsylvania gathered reports on opponents of natural gas drilling. Florida has scrutinized supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul. The list of such questionable activities is very long. We have no idea how much dubious data has been squirreled away by authorities and remains within the networked system. But we do know that information pours into it with relative ease and spreads like an oil slick. Cleaning up and removing the mess is another story entirely.

Anyone who wants to learn something about fusion center funding will also find it maddeningly difficult to track. Not even the Homeland Security Department can say with certainty how much of its own money has gone into these data nests over the last decade. The amounts are staggering, however. From 2004 to 2009 alone, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that states used about $426 million in Homeland Security Department grants to fund fusion-related activities nationally. The centers also receive state and local funds, as well as funds from other federal agencies. How much? We don't know, although GAO data suggest state and local funding at least equals the Homeland Security share.

Yet, as Tampa, New York City, and other urban areas bulk up with high-tech anti-terrorism equipment and fusion centers have proliferated, the number of even remotely "terror-related" incidents has declined. The equipment acquired and projects inaugurated to fend off largely imaginary threats is instead increasingly deployed to address ordinary criminal activity, perceived political disruptions, and the tracking and surveillance of American Muslims. The Transportation Safety Administration is now even patrolling highways. It could be called a case of mission creep, but the more accurate description might be: bait-and-switch.

The chances of an American dying in a terrorist incident in a given year are 1 in 3.5 million. To reduce that risk, to make something minuscule even more minuscule, what has the nation spent? What has it cost us? Instead of rebuilding a ravaged American city in a timely fashion or making Americans more secure in their "underwater" homes and their disappearing jobs, we have created militarized police forces, visible evidence of police-state-style funding.

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book is Mohamed's Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Salisbury discusses post-9/11 police "mission creep" in this country, click here, or download it to your iPod here. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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