Category Archives: News

Boston’s Fusion Center Gives Itself an A+ on “Privacy and Civil Liberties”

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Ten months ago, Digital Fourth submitted a public records request to Boston’s fusion center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. It took two appeals to the Secretary of State to get it, but we finally got a response.

The states operate a network of 78 fusion centers across the nation, which coordinate intelligence-related information between federal agencies and state and local law enforcement, in the name of thwarting terrorist attacks. They have never, to anyone’s knowledge, actually thwarted one, and they have become bywords in Washington for waste and ineffectiveness. Previously, we reported on constitutional violations and the results of a FOIA request at Massachusetts’ “Commonwealth Fusion Center”, operated by the State Police; now it’s the turn of Massachusetts’ other fusion center, headquartered at the Boston PD.

The most interesting document we received is the “2013 Fusion Center Assessment Individual Report: Boston Regional Intelligence Center”. This report was heavily redacted, but luckily the State of Colorado has posted on its website an unredacted 2014 report from Colorado’s fusion center that is absolutely identical in format to the Boston report we received, rendering all of the redactions in the Boston report moot. So if you’d like to understand what the BRIC didn’t want us to see, read on.

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We All Now Live In Walls Of Glass: Police peer into suspects’ homes without warrants

Over the last two years, at least 50 law enforcement agencies around the United States have used radar devices that allow them to peer through walls and into your home without a warrant, according to USA Today. The devices, each of which costs nearly $6,000, detect movement – even breathing – through walls and up to 50 feet away.

According to contracts obtained by USA Today, the US Marshals Service began buying the radars in 2012 and has since spent $180,000 on the equipment – enough for thirty Range-R radars manufactured by L-3 Communications. Disturbingly, the radars can even be mounted on a drone.

The devices were originally manufactured for use in Iraq and Afghanistan ,but have made their way onto domestic soil, providing yet another example of how the use of military gear by police results in an infringement of our fundamental right to be free of unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures.

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Levitating the Pentagon Is Now A Terrorist Act

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Back in 1967, the much-missed Abbie Hoffman and several hundred of his friends hatched a plan to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon, so that they could end the war in Vietnam. They meticulously went through all the steps for requesting a permit (including negotiating the proposed levitation down to three feet, from the initially suggested 300 feet). Most amazingly of all, to our tired War-on-Terror eyes, they were allowed to go through with it, albeit with several thousand US troops and a couple hundred US Marshals standing ready in case of chaos.

Authoritarians of both major parties will be happy to hear that today’s law enforcement won’t stand for such peaceful acts of political theater. At a time when the newspapers are dutifully parroting the paramount need for a Democratic President to bomb ISIS so hard that it will make the rubble bounce, our domestic law enforcement agencies and private security companies are getting floods of easy money to deal with the devastating terroristic threats posed by people who drop glitter or take photos of factory farms or who hold hippy parties in the woods.

Pity, in this last context, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, who make the mistake of “stressing non-violence, peace and love.” We Are Change reports that Missoula’s police chief has applied for a grant from DHS (who else?) to purchase a mobile command unit to spy on the Rainbow Family as an “extremist” organization. One of its gatherings was described as “rowdy” and as “creat[ing] a mess that [needed] to be cleaned up”. If that makes you an extremist, then based on the appearance of our toy room I appear to have two domestic extremist seven-year-olds; maybe I should be applying for a quarter-million dollar grant from DHS myself?

My goodness gracious. Well, the last thing we Americans want is any rowdiness. Leave that to the Canadians, or possibly the British. We, unlike them, are sober and obedient people who dutifully obey orders from the powers that be. It’s the only safe thing to do in this post-9/11 world.

Our New Bill SD1546 Mandates Police Bodycams, Protects Data

"Our police department in Lynn, MA likes both kinds of music - country AND western..."

“Our police department in Lynn, MA likes both kinds of music – country AND western…”

When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, there was no video of it. When Denis Reynoso was shot in Lynn, MA, there was no video of it. But what if there had been? And what if police bodycams could significantly reduce incidents of use of force by police?

Responding to this need, Digital Fourth took model legislation developed by the Harvard Black Law Students Association that mandates bodycams for police departments, modified it for Massachusetts, and got a bill filed on Beacon Hill. This session was the first time our gallant volunteers have tried anything like this, and we got a strong response. Sen. Jamie Eldridge filed the bill in the Senate; Rep. Denise Provost filed it in the House; and it has already attracted as cosponsors Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield), Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) and Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston).

The bill is a result of months of consultation with interested police departments and grapples with some difficult issues – how would bodycam data be used? When would officers be required to record? What about the consent of the people being filmed? It sets up a blue-ribbon committee to review traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and bodycam footage, requires police officers to carry bodycams in almost all circumstances, and sets strong controls on the use and dissemination of the footage.

As this appears to be the only bodycams bill that got filed in the 2015-16 session, we believe that our bill represents the best chance of fostering a discussion about reducing on-the-ground unreasonable searches and seizures – the bread and butter of the Fourth Amendment – and that it could substantially improve relations between the police and communities of color in particular. Community-police relations directly affects those working on policy initiatives: One of the people advising on our bill, Segun Idowu, chairman of the Boston Police Cameras Action Team, was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest and is currently facing trial.

“Our research, inspired by current events, confirms that community/police relations may be improved with the use of this technology, as bodycams will provide a truth that has no color,” said McKenzie Morris, President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “This legislation, albeit a first step, is a necessary endeavor for the pursuit of transparency and accountability in policing.”

The House Wants to Defund DHS. Let’s Restructure It Instead.

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Media outlets and blogs are taking to the fainting couches because Very Evil House Republicans who Hate America are threatening to defund the much-mocked Department of Homeland Security.

Sadly, they’re not failing to fund it because, say, it’s a gargantuan bureaucratic waste of time that funnels billions of taxpayer dollars to security grifting companies, or because it hands out military equipment to police departments with all the brio and experience of a private just out of basic training, or because DHS funding suppresses legitimate dissent by communities of color across the United States.

No, what’s really got House Republicans in a lather about DHS is realizing that something “must-pass” like a DHS funding bill would be a great vehicle for a poison-pill amendment overturning the President’s executive actions on immigration. So they sent that bill up to the Senate, and Senate Republicans, needing five Democratic votes to push through a DHS funding bill, somehow can’t find any Democrats willing to commit electoral hara-kiri with their own base in order to please the Republicans’ base. Go figure!

As a result, in two weeks’ time the DHS will run out of money, and apologists for the security state are beginning to panic – but they’re having trouble getting their stories straight. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warns us all, “We can’t go too far here because look what happened in Paris.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) fulminates, “We can’t shut down the DHS. Not with the threats the homeland is subjected to as a result of the rise of ISIS.” [Note: There is no threat to “the homeland” from ISIS.] For God’s sake, the TSA might run out of money! What an awful shame that would be!

The DHS is a failure. It was a bad idea to begin with, coming out of the incorrect notion that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented by “joined-up intelligence.” It never made sense to yoke the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the customs/border/transportation security/immigration agencies awkwardly together. DHS has always been poorly managed. It just layers an extra frosting of highly remunerated officials on top of agencies that would do just as fine where they were before. So let’s take a closer look at what a sensible structure would look like.

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Our New Bill, HD430, Reining In Militarization in Massachusetts

DemocracyLooksLike

Last month, we broke the news that even small towns in Massachusetts, like Rehoboth and Norfolk, were getting mine-resistant armored vehicles for free from the federal government, and had no good answer for why they needed them.

Last Friday was the deadline for filing bills for the Massachusetts legislature’s 2015-16 session, and we took the opportunity to draft a solution to the state’s police militarization problem.

Sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), our bill doesn’t ban police departments altogether from getting military-style equipment. What it does is forbid them from getting them for free, either from the federal government or as a gift from any third party. If they want to get military equipment (including stingrays or drones), the mayor and city council (in a city) or the selectmembers (in a town) have to vote publicly to approve that purchase, in effect forcing the purchase to come out of municipal funds.

Right now, the process is not democratic. The federal surplus programs are a remote corner of the federal budget, and their costs are a rounding error in DC. But to the taxpayers of a town like Rehoboth, it makes a big difference whether it’s them or the feds paying for a $700,000 MRAP.

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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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