Category Archives: News

Our Towns Are Not War Zones: Police Militarization in MA

rehoboth-fixed

The debate on police militarization, rumbling for years, has been thrust into the national spotlight after protests in Ferguson, Missouri were met with heavily armed and armored police forces acting more like combatants than peacekeepers. This approach to policing is made possible by the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which distributes surplus military equipment for free to police departments who request it and simply pay the cost of shipping. 1033 was quietly conducted for over two decades before becoming the subject of scrutiny, but now the Department of Defense has released a huge trove of data on transfers to local departments.

Thankfully, the Marshall Project has organized this data into a simple tool that displays the transfers for each local jurisdiction across the United States. Looking through the Massachusetts data, most police departments involved in the program received a few hundred or few thousand dollars worth of equipment, typically rifles and pistols. Many others received high-dollar items with peaceful uses, such as dump trucks, utility trucks, and snow plows. But buried among these innocuous transfers are some incredibly concerning items that simply don’t belong in a local police department.

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Should We Police Threats On Social Media?

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The United States has a well-developed jurisprudence for dealing with people who make threats. The default presumption, thanks to the First Amendment, is that any speech, even speech that is frightening, prejudiced or factually wrong, is legal. Even a generic desire for the President to die has First Amendment protection. The key precedents here are Watts v. United States and Brandenburg v. Ohio, both from 1969. In Watts, an 18-year-old remarked during a rally against the draft that:

“They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J.”

The ruling suggested that this was protected as merely ‘a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President’, of a kind still very familiar to us today. Those prosecuted for threatening the President over the last few years have typically had additional evidence of actual conspiracy to commit murder.

In Brandenburg, a KKK leader’s advocacy of ethnic violence was ruled to be protected by the First Amendment, because it was not “directed to inciting” or “likely to incite, imminent lawless action.” There must be some specificity as to the time that the lawless action is to occur; it cannot simply be a generalized articulation of the need for violence at some future time. It must be, in other words, a so-called “true threat.”

These rulings have stood essentially unmodified for nearly half a century. They are also a lot more protective of threatening speech than most people, including surveillance state employees, casually assume. One result of that assumption is that surveillance agencies pro-actively monitor social media, and open investigations on the basis of First Amendment-protected threats they encounter, when the constitutionality of doing so is at best highly suspect.

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It Takes A Massive Surveillance Apparatus To Hold Us Back: Fusion Centers, Ferguson and the Deep State

Dime-Fasces

Here’s a question: How much of a national security threat are people protesting the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown?

If you answered, There’s no national security threat; they’re exercising their First Amendment rights, which should be celebrated, then you’re obviously a pre-9/11-American, which is enough to get you disinvited from the major TV propaganda shows.

Local news media reported on the Black Lives Matter protest in Boston, and noted, without really thinking about it, that “the state police Commonwealth Fusion Center monitored social media, which provided “critical intelligence about protesters’ plans to try to disrupt traffic on state highways.” It didn’t really register because journalists are mostly not watching fusion centers like we are, and aren’t seeing them come up again and again and again and again, lurking at the edges of stories about free speech and national security, and policing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say.

Think, then, of fusion centers as state-based NSAs overseen loosely by the Department of Homeland Security. Set up after 9/11 to provide “joined-up intelligence” and thwart terrorist attacks, they quickly found that there just wasn’t enough terrorism of the kind not ginned up by government informants themselves to sustain 88 separate local antiterrorism centers in addition to the NSA, FBI and CIA. So they expanded their definition of terrorism to cover many other things, which in Massachusetts have included harassing peaceful activists and elected officials while missing actual terrorist plots, and now, for lack of anything better to do with their tax dollars, vetting licenseholders for marijuana dispensaries and fostering anonymous threat reporting in public schools.

We have advocated against fusion centers for a long time. Last week, we received the results of a FOIA request to Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Fusion Center that throws more light on the kind of information they hold, and the kind of society that is being constructed without our consent.

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Not-Methuen-High-School Installs “Guardian Shooter Detection System”

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In Methuen, MA, security contractor Shooter Detection Systems (“1-844-SHOT911″) has convinced school administrators to install a “Guardian” system that “constantly monitors” school hallways and classrooms for sounds of gunfire. As an extra, they got local Congresswoman Niki Tsongas to intone pieties about making schools “safe sanctuaries for learning.” Apparently, that means “lending my credibility to a sales campaign that will funnel school tax money away from teachers and supplies and into the pockets of contractors, in the name of thwarting random low-probability events.”

Raw Story picked up the press release, and indulged in their own little bit of security theater, noting soberly that the PR firm for Shooter Detection Systems had asked them not to reveal the name of the school even while they had named the relevant town in its own press release.

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Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part IV: Surveillance Doesn’t Pay in MA

Martha Coakley and Maura Healey

Martha Coakley and Maura Healey

Poor Martha Coakley. Oceans of ink have now been spilled on why outgoing Massachusetts Attorney-General Martha Coakley lost her bid for Governor. Arguments have included that she’s a poor campaigner, that many Democrats resented bitterly her loss to Scott Brown back in 2010, that she was a female candidate facing a somewhat sexist electorate.

I’m not going to argue that surveillance issues alone swung the race against Coakley. However, I would like to draw attention to a broader reason, to which her support for expanding wiretapping contributed, that fueled Democratic base disaffection with her.

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Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part III: Congress & Obama At Daggers Drawn…Except Where It Counts

yesminpowertopeople

There are people who will tell you that the fact that the Republicans now control 53 Senate seats as well as a large majority in the House, will lead to actual and meaningful legislative action, whether on immigration, tax reform, or infrastructure spending. Oh, those people are going to be so frustrated by the next two years.

Both Congress and the President have strong incentives to play to their bases so that the bases turn out in 2016, so they will still highlight hot-button issues that will activate them. The mysterious thing is that there is plenty of bipartisan consensus in Washington; it’s just that it applies only to certain issues, and doesn’t get reported on much because neither party wants to highlight it. Specifically, there is genuine, friendly, unstated bipartisan consensus on the set of policies that buttresses the party elites’ authority and prosperity.

What supports the elites? War; monopoly; a crisis-hungry unity between corporations and the state, in the name of “national security.” A revolving door between the two. Corrupt, no-bid contracts. Open bankrolling of political campaigns. And underpinning it all, mass, suspicionless surveillance to monitor any discontent with this state of affairs. It’s not a coincidence that new authority for a war of extirpation against ISIS is likely to be high on the new Congress’s agenda; without an external enemy, without war, looting the state gets much harder.

These matters will not fill the TV news, however – not when the much juicier stories of repeated efforts to repeal Obamacare and impeachment of the President are available as narratives. These narratives, at least, don’t require news outlets to examine their own complicity in in supporting the elites.

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Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part II: CIA and Elite Torturers Win, The Rule of Law Loses

DilbertCorporateCulture2002

We lack in this country a major party that offers wholehearted and universal support for the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights, and the choices offered are often highly constrained. To take the last two presidential elections as an example, the more pro-civil-liberties of the major-party candidates has launched more Espionage Act prosecutions than all previous presidents combined; indefinitely detains legally innocent people, for fear of what they might do if released; allows agencies to gin up fake terror plots; calls the idea of actually prosecuting torturers “sanctimonious“; and would prefer a cosmetic surveillance reform that legitimates most of what the deep state is doing and that, of course, wouldn’t punish anyone. The less pro-civil-liberties candidates argued for unending war in the Middle East, invited warmongers and torturers to introduce them at campaign stops, and argued that affording due process to prisoners of war would be a kind of treason.

There’s a reason for this constrained choice set: The elites of both parties no longer, if they ever did, believe that laws apply to them, their colleagues, their funders, or the intelligence agencies. As a result of this culture of lawlessness, no candidate that genuinely seeks to have laws apply universally will garner the insider support needed to advance their candidacies.

We will see the effects of this constrained choice set in the new Congress most clearly in the field of prosecutions for US government acts of torture.

Let’s review the history.

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Security Grifting At Work: Million-Dollar ALPR System In Vermont Solves Four (4) Crimes in 2013

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Vermont Public Radio does the spadework to find out whether automated license plate surveillance systems offer a reasonable return on investment:

“…Even with the millions of scans, the system has not led to many arrests or breakthroughs in major criminal investigations. […] They were helpful in solving fewer than five crimes in 2013. [Officer] Cram [of Winooski PD] says the federally-funded ALPR is a valuable tool, even though he doesn’t think the city would have put up $25,000 of its own money to buy one.

At a cost of “over $1 million” over five years, that works out at around $50,000 per crime solved. [Note: Initial calculations of $40,000 per crime solved were based on an inaccurate figure of five crimes solved.]

At a rate of $50,000 per crime, you could hire one part-time police officer, and I suspect that that part-time police officer would solve more than one crime per year. So what gives?

This is what gives, for ALPR, for surveillance cameras, and for military surplus equipment. Police departments count the cost of new surveillance equipment at zero, even when it’s not (taxpayers ultimately pay). It’s hard for police chiefs to turn down free, even if free offers only the most marginal prospect of reducing crime. But it says everything about the utility of this technology that, had the City of Winooski been asked to put up its own money, Officer Cram thought that they wouldn’t have done it. Oh – and I almost forgot to mention – as the article mentions, the entity charged with managing the data from this boondoggle is, naturally, the Vermont fusion center.

Meanwhile, only half of American roads are in good repair, and our public transportation is an international laughingstock. Americans’ median incomes are falling, and more and more of us are just a paycheck or two from disaster. We scrutinize every milligram of social spending to uncover with great fanfare a rate of fraud of $0.0073 per dollar spent, because we can’t abide any of them Cadillac-driving fur-coat-clad welfare queens. And yet somehow, funding for more surveillance, more militarization, and more war, is never-ending and never requires proper accounting or justification.

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