“Rather than thinking about vaccine passports as temporary, isolated, public health-related measures, we should view them as just one example of how the pandemic is accelerating the rollout of digital identity infrastructure.”
“Rather than thinking about vaccine passports as temporary, isolated, public health-related measures, we should view them as just one example of how the pandemic is accelerating the rollout of digital identity infrastructure.”
House Democrats plan on Wednesday to unveil a $2.1bn supplemental bill to enhance security at the Capitol that will propose creating a quick reaction force to guard against future threats in the wake of the Capitol attack, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The proposed bill will also include the construction of a retractable fencing system around the Capitol, the sources said.
Two officers with an FBI task force showed up at the home of a Michigan state senator’s chief of staff and aggressively questioned her about a draft bill she had discussed on a private legislative Zoom call. The bill would limit the use of tear gas by police against protesters.
The incident happened in Southfield, a suburb north of Detroit, on October 29, days before the presidential election and less than a month after the FBI had foiled a terror plot by far-right violent extremists to kidnap Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and seize control of the Capitol building. The men, an FBI special agent and a local police officer assigned to the task force, knocked on the door of Katie Reiter, chief of staff to state Sen. Rosemary Bayer, a Democrat. They told her that they had received a “report” about an online conversation she had participated in from her home 10 days earlier, in which she had discussed “the use of tear gas during the election,” Reiter told The Intercept. They then pressed her to answer questions about the bill’s substance and timing even after she had told them what her job was and repeatedly warned that the content of the draft legislation was confidential.
“He was very unpleasant,” Reiter said of the special agent, who stood close to her without wearing a mask and combatively asked questions while refusing to answer hers. “I said, ‘Well, you know who I work for, right? And what I do for a living?’” she recalled. “Because I figured they would have Googled before they came to my house. He said, ‘No, we have no idea who you are.’”
Reiter had discussed the proposed ban on tear gas on a private 90-minute Zoom call with Bayer and a handful of other staffers on October 19, part of a package of proposed legislation drafted in response to the George Floyd protests last summer. She believes she might have discussed the election as well, possibly strategizing about whether to introduce the draft bill before or after the November vote. But the conversation was a routine work call — and the FBI’s visit and insistent questioning raised alarming questions about how and why the legislative discussion warranted police scrutiny.
While Reiter says the two officers refused to answer any questions about how they became aware of her private meeting, she noted that an appliance repairman was in a nearby room at the time of the call and might have overheard the conversation and alerted the authorities. “I don’t think it can be ruled out,” she said.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment on the record, as did a spokesperson for Zoom. Regardless of how the FBI came to know of the call, civil rights advocates argued it was highly inappropriate for the agents to interrogate an elected official’s aide about legislative matters.
Mike German, a former FBI special agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program, noted that there are severe restrictions on the FBI’s political activities, including any investigative effort that might impact an election or legislation. “Certainly if there was any intention to intimidate staffers in their deliberations about legislation, that would be highly problematic,” he told The Intercept. “And the police officers or task force officers should have recognized that as soon as the witness said that she was a staffer discussing legislation.”
German also noted that the incident was indicative of a long-standing problem with the FBI’s war on terror-era policy to investigate every tip it receives, no matter how implausible or far-fetched — an effort that he says wastes resources while putting civil liberties at risk and hindering the FBI’s ability to pursue the most credible threats.
“For our safety, we put fire alarms in every building, but we also make it against the law to pull them if there isn’t a fire, because we recognize that responding to false alarms dulls the response time,” he said. “And yet the security apparatus we’ve created post-9/11 creates a massive amount of false alarms.”
View of the FBI building in Detroit.
Photo: Google Maps
Reiter had been in bed when she was woken up by loud pounding on her door and voices yelling “Police!” at around 8 a.m. She threw on a bathrobe and answered the door, where two plainclothes officers first identified themselves as police and then as FBI. Reiter did not recognize their badges, so she went inside to get dressed and called her sister, who lives nearby, her husband, father, and local police, whom she asked to come over. “I didn’t really know if these were FBI agents or not,” she told The Intercept. “I was afraid to open my door.”
When Southfield police arrived at the home and confirmed the agents were indeed with the FBI, Reiter asked them to stay. (She later obtained a police report, shared with The Intercept, confirming that police remained on the scene, at a distance, for the duration of the FBI’s visit. The agents claimed they had been at Reiter’s home a day earlier but found no one there, which she says is unlikely as her husband was working from home that day.) Over the next 10 minutes, they then grilled Reiter, skeptically pressing her about her Zoom conversation and pushing back against her answers as if they didn’t believe her. When she told them about the proposed legislation, they insisted on knowing what it would say, whether it would be formally introduced, and when. When she repeated that this information was confidential business of the state legislature, the agent who had been conducting most of the questioning told her it would have to go in his report, she said.
“Once I said who I was and who I worked for, and moreover, what the meeting was about, the interrogation should have ended,” Reiter told The Intercept. “If they didn’t believe me about the tear gas legislation, they could have easily asked to talk with the senator rather than continue to question me. … It certainly didn’t take that much time for me to tell them who I was and what the Zoom meeting was about. The rest of the questioning was focused on the legislation. To this day, I don’t know why.”
Before the officers left, and at Reiter’s insistence, one of them gave her his business card. The other officer, who said he had no card with him, scribbled his name in the back. The men were Jeff Whipple, a police officer with the Birmingham Police Department and member of the FBI’s financial crimes task force for metro Detroit, and FBI Special Agent Dave Jacobs. The FBI runs dozens of task forces across the country, in which agents from the bureau partner with a host of local and state police agencies to tackle a variety of law enforcement issues, from financial crimes to terrorism. It’s unclear why an investigation into remarks about the use of tear gas would have fallen under the aegis of this particular task force, which typically pursues fraud and other financial crimes.
The presence of local police on FBI task forces, particularly joint terrorism task forces or JTTFs, has long been a controversial issue. Some cities have pulled their officers from these partnerships because the civil rights protections the FBI is required to observe are more lenient compared to those of local police departments. And there have been problematic instances of FBI task forces inappropriately intervening in local political matters. In 2012, for instance, members of a Nevada JTTF aggressively interrogated Native American residents and others who had spoken at a public town hall in opposition to bear hunting, German said.
In the Michigan case, it was notable that local police officers on an FBI task force would seek to investigate legislation that would restrict their own departments’ ability to use tear gas against protesters. “I would imagine that with any sort of legislative effort to restrict the use of tear gas by police officers, local police would have an interest in that legislation,” said German. “It certainly raises questions.”
Reached by phone, Whipple declined to comment, while Jacobs did not return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Birmingham Police Department, Whipple’s employer, wrote in an email to The Intercept that the officer is assigned full time to the task force and referred questions to the FBI. “The incident you are referring to is a federal matter,” the spokesperson wrote.
State Sen. Rosemary Bayer pictured working on her laptop.
Photo: Rosemary Bayer Caucus Page
Following the FBI’s visit, Reiter filed a public records request with the city of Southfield seeking more information about the encounter. City officials denied most of her request. One document she received cited a number of exemptions to public records laws, including one indicating that fulfilling her request might help “identify or provide means of identifying an informant.”
State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, who worked as a software engineer before being elected in 2019, was disturbed by the FBI’s visit to her staffer and alarmed about how the bureau might have learned about the subject of their Zoom call. Bayer said that her immediate concern was whether “they hacked into the meeting,” she told The Intercept, or whether the visit was intended “to cause fear and intimidation.”
“The whole thing feels political, like they were either trying to intimidate a Democratic office before the election or intimidate people working on the side of Black Lives Matter,” she later wrote in an email. “It all feels so Iron Curtain (or maybe J. Edgar Hoover) — men pounding on the door in the dark hours of the morning, incorrectly identifying themselves, purposely intimidating people just to scare them. To keep them from — protesting? Teaching about implicit bias?”
There isn’t any evidence that Zoom provided the FBI or any other law enforcement agency with information about the October virtual meeting, or that any such law enforcement agency somehow has real-time access to the contents of meetings on the platform. But regardless of how the FBI task force learned about the Zoom call, the incident offers a jarring reminder that the degree of privacy and confidentiality afforded by in-person meetings is impossible to achieve through streaming video calls.
The incident offers a reminder that the degree of privacy and confidentiality afforded by in-person meetings is impossible to achieve through streaming video calls.
Bayer explained that before the Covid-19 pandemic, a meeting like this one would have been a closed-door affair in Bayer’s Senate office. She believes that she or other staff on the Zoom call may have talked about “dropping” the tear gas bill before the election, using lawmakers’ shorthand for introducing legislation; the combination of words might have sounded like a threat to an uninformed eavesdropper. She added that the incident had an immediate chilling effect on the work of her staff. “The whole team is intimidated,” she said. “As soon as somebody says something that might be misconstrued, everybody stops … ‘No, don’t say that!’ We’re all trying to eliminate the word ‘drop’ from our lexicon.”
Reiter said that the FBI’s visit left her confused and fearful. “It has impacted my sleep, it has caused me quite a bit of anxiety,” she said. “And it has certainly impacted how we talk. I try not to let it, I’ll just be like, ‘No, we’re going to talk about this.’ But it’s in my mind all the time.”
“It is our job to talk about these issues, it is our job to talk about how can we be keeping our constituents safe, how can we be addressing violence in our community,” said Rosie Jones, who works for Michigan’s Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and was alerted to the FBI’s visit by Reiter. “To not feel comfortable and talk about those things prevents us from doing our job.”
The incident came at a time of heightened tensions for Michigan legislators, after prosecutors announced terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges against 13 men who had plotted to storm the state Capitol building and instigate a “civil war.” Six of the men had also repeatedly met to plan the abduction of the Michigan governor, Whitmer, a frequent target of President Donald Trump’s attacks. And at least two of those arrested had participated in a rally by armed protesters outside the state Capitol earlier in the year, demonstrating against measures aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus. The FBI’s visit to Reiter seemed particularly misplaced in light of those very real threats to the safety of legislators, she noted. “I work for the people who actually were threatened,” Reiter recalls telling the FBI agent who was interrogating her as if she had been the one posing a threat.
As protests against police brutality rocked the country after the killing of George Floyd, the FBI has devoted considerable resources to targeting Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-fascist activists, even though far-right extremist groups have long posed the greatest threat of violence.
But thanks to the post-9/11 exhortation of “If you see something, say something,” the FBI receives an enormous number of tips that it has committed to pursue no matter how absurd.
“These agents have to do hundreds, thousands of these nonsense interviews even if the allegation itself is ridiculous,” said German, the former FBI special agent, noting that task forces regularly assign less experienced agents to these interviews. “It really becomes a game of intimidation, where I’m going to look you in the eye, and make an accusation against you based on this threat I received, and see how you respond.”
“This methodology of intimidation is not necessarily effective for getting at the truth,” he added. “But it’s more obviously inappropriate when the person you’re targeting with such an approach is involved in the democratic system that the FBI is sworn to protect.”
The post FBI Questioned a Michigan Senate Staffer After Zoom Call About Banning Tear Gas appeared first on The Intercept.
St. Louis, MO – Aerial surveillance company Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) negotiated a plan in secret with a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen with hopes of flying multiple spy planes simultaneously over the city’s metro area in 2021. The plan that PSS…
Despite being spied on and having their privacy invaded by the UC Global firm that targeted Assange, reporters from major US news outlets have said nothing in protest. Meanwhile, new evidence of that firm’s CIA links has emerged. A Spanish security firm apparently contracted by US intelligence to carry out a campaign of black operations […]
The post Mainstream US reporters silent about being spied on by apparent CIA contractor that targeted Assange appeared first on The Grayzone.
“Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” That same persistent eye in the sky may soon be deployed over U.S. cities.
At the time he made that comment about surveillance drones over Afghanistan, Maj. General James Poss was the Air Force’s top intelligence officer. He was preparing to leave the Pentagon, and move over to the Federal Aviation Administration. His job was to begin executing the plan to allow those same surveillance drones to fly over American cities.
This plan was ordered by Congress in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. It directed the Departments of Defense and Transportation to “develop a plan for providing expanded access to the national airspace for unmanned aircraft systems of the Department of Defense.” Gen. Poss was one of nearly two dozen ex-military officers who, starting in 2010, were put into positions at the FAA to oversee drone integration research. With little public scrutiny, the plan has been moving forward ever since.
If you’re thinking that this is a partisan issue, think again. This plan has been enacted and expanded under Presidents and Congresses of both parties. If you’re uncomfortable with a President Biden having the ability to track the movements of every Tea Party or Q-Anon supporter, you should be. Just as we should all be concerned about a President Trump tracking…well, everybody else.
Along with civil liberties, a major concern must be safety. The military and the drone manufacturers, principally General Atomics, are arguing that the technology has advanced far enough that flying 79-ft. wingspan, six-ton drones over populated areas and alongside commercial air traffic is safe. We have one response: self-driving cars. Self-driving cars present a technological problem that is an order of magnitude simpler than aircraft flying hundreds of miles per hour in three dimensions. Yet they still can’t keep these cars from plowing into stationary objects like firetrucks (or people) at 60 mph in two dimensions. Are we really comfortable with pilotless aircraft operating in the same airspace as the 747 at 30,000 feet that is bringing your children home for Christmas? These drones have a troubled history of crashing and unfortunately, the process for determining whether these drones are now truly safe has been compromised by having the military, which wants this approval, largely in charge of the testing.
Which brings us to San Diego. Last October, General Atomics announced that they would be flying their biggest, most advanced surveillance drone yet, the SkyGuardian, over the City of San Diego sometime this summer. The stated purpose was to demonstrate potential commercial applications of large drones over American cities. In this case, the drone would be used to survey the city’s infrastructure.
But when General Atomics first began preparing for the flight, the goal was a very different one: Back in 2017, military technology analysts were predicting that by 2025, drones similar to those used in Afghanistan and Iraq would be hovering above U.S. cities, relaying high-resolution video of the movement of every citizen to police departments (and who knows who else). When there was public pushback to this police department drone use—even a pro-industry reporter called the idea “dystopian”—General Atomics changed the purpose of the flight from providing data to the police to “mapping critical infrastructure” in the San Diego region.
The FAA, which is responsible for granting permission to General Atomics, has kept the process secret. When the Voice of San Diego asked for more information, the FAA refused on the grounds that this supposed commercial demonstration was actually “military.” The Voice of San Diego is now suing to get answers and the ACLU has also expressed concern about the flight. Amid the scrutiny, General Atomics quietly announced that the flight was cancelled, but this is certain to be a small hiccup in their long-term plan.
In fact, General Atomics’ drones are already being used domestically. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flies Predators over parts of the U.S.- Mexico and U.S.-Canadian borders. Recently, CBP has expanded their reach, using these drones to assist police in Minneapolis, San Antonio and Detroit in the wake of protests against police brutality. Deeply concerned, members of Congress wrote to federal agencies denouncing the chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans and demanding an immediate end to surveilling peaceful protests.
The concerns of these members of Congress should be echoed by the general public. What are the possible effects on our civil liberties from having high-tech surveillance platforms circling over millions of Americans, gathering information about our every move? We know from past experience that every government surveillance technology that can be abused has been abused. Allowing this powerful technology to be taken from overseas wars and turned inward on American citizens isn’t something that should happen without a robust public debate. The implications for civil liberties are too profound.
The post A “Persistent Eye in the Sky” Coming to a City Near You? appeared first on CounterPunch.org.
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
The demands are clear: defund and abolish police. As those calls grow, so will efforts by reformers to propose new rules and regulations that they say will “improve” and restore “legitimacy” to policing. These bureaucratic reforms reflect the failed thinking that built up the carceral state, and they will make policing harder to dismantle. Reforms like this are meant to pacify social movements, replacing community self-determination with the “expertise” of lawyers, academics, and other professionals who are complicit in oppression.
Bureaucratic reforms are not just too little. They are also dangerous. Decades of judicial oversight, transparency legislation, and self-auditing requirements have not reduced the power of the carceral state. To the contrary, they have created a vast punishment bureaucracy giving political legitimacy and social inertia to a system of mass caging rooted in enslavement. Applying this same regulatory framework to the governance of policing will only expand the reach and harm of policing, just as it has helped to make the prison-industrial complex bigger, harsher, more durable, and racist as ever.
The chief proponents of police bureaucracy are typically professionals whose authority depends on working closely with the carceral state. Consider the recent L.A. Times op-ed by University of Texas professor Sarah Brayne, “One way to shrink the LAPD’s budget: Cut costly and invasive big-data policing.” Brayne spent years embedded within the Los Angeles Police Department as a doctoral student at Princeton. Despite the op-ed’s title, it never proposes reducing let alone “cutting” any police surveillance. Instead Brayne writes about the “secrecy” that “shrouds” LAPD’s data systems. She notes that New York City recently required “the NYPD to disclose which technology it uses and what data it collects.” She proposes that “Los Angeles should follow suit.”
Brayne asserts that “surveillance technologies are largely missing from today’s urgent conversations.” That voice is “missing” only if one ignores local activists. Here in Los Angeles, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has fought to dismantle LAPD surveillance since 2011, recently forcing LAPD to end its LASER, Chronic Offender, and PredPol surveillance programs. An abolitionist organization, Stop LAPD Spying has also organized against laws like the one Brayne proposes importing from New York. That law, named the POST Act, tasks the NYPD with writing “surveillance impact and use policies” to post on their website, where the public has 45 days to comment. While police are asked to “consider” the comments, NYPD is not required to make changes or to share the information that underlies their conclusions, which will be framed by NYPD’s army of lawyers.
These laws are also often coupled with efforts to limit use of a particular surveillance technology, like the restrictions on facial recognition enacted by San Francisco and the recently proposed Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act, introduced by Senator Ed Markey and others this June. Explaining the bill, Markey acknowledged calls “to dismantle the systematic racism that permeates every part of our society” and noted that face recognition “physically endangers Black Americans.” But at the same time that his bill seeks to freeze police use of face surveillance, it outlines details of the regulatory scheme that Congress would enact to end the moratorium, including “auditing requirements,” “standards for use and management,” and “minimum accuracy rates.”
The idea behind these reforms is that policing can be tamed through paperwork and rules. This whitewashes the harm of surveillance, which will be used for racial domination no matter if it is lawful or unlawful, no matter if “accurate.” The politicians and lawyers behind the POST Act last month celebrated their “tremendous” and “vital” victory. But the truth is that legislation like this is the easiest possible win in this moment, betraying the bolder visions of the mass movement calling to abolish police.
No one is taking to the streets facing down tear gas to demand police bureaucracy. To the contrary, today’s protests originate in the failure of past reforms, which have done little to end policing’s death toll. These protests have made police abolition a serious conversation. Whether and how legislation can be abolitionist are important questions. But if legislation is a goal, that power should be used to ban particular forms of surveillance, not just create a bureaucracy to regulate them. Calls for surveillance oversight ignore the lessons of past struggles against federal national security surveillance and Red Squad repression, which led to the creation of bureaucracies like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the NYPD’s Handschu guidelines. Rather than dismantling policing, reforms like this help police adapt to criticism, to reinvent and rebuild.
When the POST Act was enacted, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition criticized the reform as “surveillance bureaucracy” and observed that laws like this presume “that our communities want to be surveilled, so long as the state follows a heavily stacked process, pretends to consider input, and checks off a few baseline legal requirements.” At the time, it may have appeared odd for activists from Los Angeles to criticize local legislation in another state. But Stop LAPD Spying observed that the “national uprising against police terror will be used to force similar reforms across the country.” We are seeing that now.
To be sure, this isn’t the first time a reformer who worked closely with police has proposed surveillance bureaucracy laws for Los Angeles. In 2015 the ACLU’s local Director of Police Practices sent a proposal for a similar local law that he had drafted to an LAPD deputy chief, asking “if you have any concerns with any of the provisions that are in here” and inviting ideas for “provisions you think should be in here but aren’t.” The ACLU later pushed a statewide version of similar legislation. An ACLU press release announced that the bill would offer “a seat at the table” and foster “public debate” to build community assent for surveillance.
This relates to the deeper issue with reforms like the POST Act, reflected both in who is advancing these proposals and in what these laws will create. Reform like this is pacification: it takes power away from the people, directing opposition into a bureaucratic process that marginalizes community voices, while elevating voices that support police or – at most – compromise with them. And at the end of the day, these reforms allow police to say that the community “controls” surveillance (“community control” is even in the title of the ACLU’s model surveillance bureaucracy legislation, curiously named CCOPS) when the truth is that police set the agenda and violently hold the power. After securing “public” approval, police continue their harm with a claim of legitimacy. This is nothing like abolition. It’s not even de-policing, reducing the scope of what police do. It’s police preservation.
Abolition is decolonization. More than just ending policing and prisons, it’s a practice of building a new world. Those institutions are weapons of settler colonialism and racial capitalism, but they aren’t the only ones. Abolition requires dismantling all the weapons made using those ideologies. It requires dismantling universities, which colonize and hoard knowledge while credentialing experts who work to maintain oppression. It requires ending imperialism, whose wars, borders, and extraction are police violence on a planetary scale. And it requires dismantling the legal bureaucracies that legitimate and sustain a system of mass torture and killing.
Far more than dismantling and defunding though, abolition requires building the autonomy and self-determination that the carceral state denies. This begins with advancing the political vision of those who policing harms. Academics like Brayne aren’t the only people with ideas about how to address the harm of surveillance in Los Angeles. Brayne is using her authority to argue against the views of movement organizers who are working to dismantle LAPD surveillance. No matter her intentions, Brayne’s expertise comes from riding around in police cars and helicopters, shadowing police as they hunted people. In contrast, grassroots organizers speak from working to empower the communities harmed by policing.
Academics and lawyers don’t need to get in the way of liberation. Instead of solely thinking about social problems, they can think with movements struggling to transcend those problems. They can defer to the deep expertise of communities marginalized by the state and participate in the daily work of building political power, advancing self-determination, and dismantling oppressive structures. They can amplify community leadership in an effort to ensure lasting social change, contributing their “expertise” to collective liberation rather than being another cog in the technocratic management and bureaucratic rationalization of structural violence.
The positive task of surveillance abolition – building a world without mass suspicion and supervision – poses questions that need deep attention. Surveillance extends beyond the hard social control and violence of police and prisons. “Surveillance,” writes Simone Browne, “is the fact of antiblackness.” Its purpose is to harm communities and administer an oppressive social order. Rather than settling for “community control” of this violence, communities that are resisting surveillance from the perspective of liberation are creating a new historical horizon, where at first light these important questions can be confronted and then in the fuller light of a new day can help new ways of life built around democratic self-administration to bloom. Advocating for reforms like the POST Act keeps us lost in the darkness of our present condition.
Abolitionists have long known that the purpose of policing is to violently maintain an oppressive social order. New rules and criteria will not end that violence. Instead, they will just lead police to invest more resources and expertise into monitoring and avoiding compliance with the latest rules. This will make our system of mass suspicion, incarceration, and banishment harder to dismantle. If academics and lawyers wish to play a role in advancing liberation, they need a radically different approach to expertise as well as deference to those working to build a world without policing. Reforms that build police bureaucracy go in the opposite direction, placing more authority in elite hands and giving police new footing to expand their violence.
The post Police Bureaucracy and Abolition: Why Reforms Driven by Professionals will Renew State Oppression appeared first on CounterPunch.org.
In August, 40 federal agents arrived in Memphis. Some were already on the ground by the time U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant announced the onset of Operation Legend and the city became, along with St. Louis, the seventh to be targeted by the Justice Department’s heavy-handed initiative to reduce violent crime. Many of the agents are on temporary assignment, working in collaboration with police; nearly half will relocate by November. But they will leave behind a city flush with grant money for local police — and heightened surveillance capabilities.
In Memphis, organizers have long battled police surveillance. The fight came to a head in 2017, when a lawsuit against the city of Memphis revealed years of close surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists and union organizers. “We knew we were being watched and monitored and surveilled,” said Hunter Demster, an activist who was tracked on social media by MPD. The suit was successful, and in 2018, a federal judge ordered an independent monitor to oversee policing in the city. Now, activists there say that Operation Legend is a serious blow.
Operation Legend and its December precursor, Operation Relentless Pursuit, are both funding surveillance technology in cities across the country. Through Operation Legend, Memphis and four other cities received grants for gunshot detection technology, which lines cities with sensors to detect gunfire, despite longstanding concerns about its efficacy. Other more opaque grants from the Justice Department, like a $1.4 million grant to Shelby County, which surrounds Memphis, in April and a $1 million grant in July to the city of Cleveland, are to be used in part for “technological solutions” or “support” for investigations.
Awash in these federal funds, cities have doubled down on their surveillance investments, even as they face general budget shortfalls in the tens of millions. On August 4, two days before Operation Legend was formally announced in the city, Memphis signed a new contract with Cellebrite, an Israeli forensics manufacturer popular with law enforcement, whose products can hack and extract data from smartphones. The estimated $65,000 contract would double previous annual spending on the technology, per city procurement records. The Memphis police declined an interview request for this story and did not respond to several additional inquiries about the purchases.
Through Operation Legend, Memphis and four other cities received grants for gunshot detection technology, despite longstanding concerns about its efficacy.
On August 12, the city of Detroit — another of the nine cities targeted by Operation Legend — also placed a $100,000 order with Cellebrite to acquire the company’s “premium” software package and, two weeks later, renewed an older Cellebrite license for another $22,000 — more than tripling 2018 and 2019 expenditures.
Chicago, meanwhile, announced on August 14 that it would employ “enhanced” technology for “around-the-clock” monitoring of social media to identify looters. One hundred federal agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives were sent to Chicago through Operation Legend in late July. Though Mayor Lori Lightfoot at first assumed a hostile attitude toward the initiative, in August she also announced a new task force on looting in partnership with the FBI. “This Task Force is already reviewing video camera footage and other evidence to identify perpetrators and develop strong cases against them,” she wrote.
Just the presence of federal agents can undermine longstanding efforts for accountability on police surveillance. In Memphis, a unique consent decree from 1978 prohibits law enforcement from engaging in “political intelligence” — collecting information on individuals for political purposes. This decree was the backbone of the 2018 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, which held that Memphis had violated the law. City law enforcement has lobbied to amend and strike the decree, but so far, it has held.
Yet the Memphis law does not apply to federal law enforcement. “That’s the harsh truth. The decree only covers the city,” explained Tom Castelli, legal director for the ACLU of Tennessee, though per the decree, the city cannot collaborate on unlawful surveillance with outside agencies.
Still, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings has alluded to partnering with the FBI to get around some of the decree’s restrictions, later confirming through a city spokesperson that he “told [federal officials] that we are restricted by the consent decree and depend on them to catch threats articulated on social media.”
As U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana Josh Minkler said, as he announced Operation Legend’s expansion to Indianapolis, federal agencies contribute “not just manpower, but technology that can help identify and arrest the individuals. And then they have access to federal courts.”
For Joia Thornton, an organizer with Decarcerate Memphis, a group that formed in response to Operation Relentless Pursuit, the initiatives form part of a longer legacy of federal support for policing. “We believe this mirrors the three-strikes laws, the war on drugs — all of these types of tactics to drive up mass incarceration,” she told The Intercept. “We are on the front lines to resist that.”
Indeed, U.S. Attorney General William Barr has frequently defended Operation Legend by noting that it is a continuation of federal policing efforts, rather than a radical departure from the norm. These are “traditional crime-fighting activities” he told reporters in Detroit — just now “ratcheted-up.”
Attorney General William Barr talks to the media during a news conference about Operation Legend, a federal task force formed to fight violent crime in several cities, on Aug. 19, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo.
Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP
The Department of Defense’s 1033 program is perhaps the best-known example of federal investment in policing. In 2014, footage of military vehicles rolling down the streets of Ferguson drew national outcry, bringing scrutiny to the program. 1033 continues provide bayonets, grenade launchers, and other leftovers from U.S. wars overseas to police precincts across the country.
But the Homeland Security and Justice departments also fund law enforcement to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The DOJ’s Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which emerged in the post-9/11 era of rapidly inflated federal spending on policing, is one of the major grant programs for police and has been criticized for, in effect, funding mass imprisonment. Its grants also fund sophisticated policing technology.
Memphis is a prime example: Over the last decade, the city’s license plate reader system, its “real-time crime center” — which houses a “video wall” of live surveillance camera feeds — and its gunshot recognition cameras were all funded, at least in part, through Byrne JAG grants.
Years of federal investment in surveillance have resulted in what Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, calls a “layering” effect: “These things don’t come all at once. They build up,” she said. “And when you start feeding one surveillance technology after another into a database, you give police departments the ability to track what people are doing very closely.”
Technologies popular with federal agencies tend to make their way down to the local level. Take, for example, the new popularity of phone-hacking technology with police: The technology was first picked up more than a decade ago by federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI. Now, a growing number of cities and state law enforcement have access to some kind of mobile data extraction software. “You’ve got cops and cruisers using it. The tools always trickle down,” a forensic scientist told Motherboard in 2016.
Yet the federal government, for years, has funded phone-hacking tools directly. The Bureau of Justice Assistance, which has offered generous grants to Memphis, Detroit, and other cities through Operation Legend this summer, has previously funded Cellebrite products for police departments in Florida, Maryland, Kansas, and Idaho. It has also funded artificial intelligence-based data repositories, predictive analytics, and social media monitoring tools.
“Much of this equipment and technology is given under the guise of either narcotics, policing, or counterterrorism. Ultimately, a lot of it gets used to monitor protests.”
In turn, the grants have created an industry of policing technology dependent on federal funding. ShotSpotter, the largest gunshot detection provider in the country and a major beneficiary of Operation Legend, illustrates this well. The company has spent nearly $2 million lobbying legislators over the past decade, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics — most recently, on a bill that would permit the attorney general to dole out grants for gunshot detection tech.
That legislation remains stalled in the House, but for ShotSpotter, Operation Legend proved a windfall. Five cities — Memphis, Cleveland, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Detroit — will receive grants to purchase or expand their gunshot detection through the program. Milwaukee already has a ShotSpotter system in place, and Detroit now plans to deploy it again, after piloting the technology in 2014.
Yet there is little evidence that ShotSpotter reduces gun crime. A study published this year on ShotSpotter in St. Louis found that the system, whose microphones detect and alert police to gunshots, had no impact on violent crime whatsoever: “The results were, essentially, it doesn’t work,” said Dennis Mare, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who co-authored the study, though he admitted that it is difficult to extrapolate the results to all cities. Why, then, is St. Louis still receiving federal grants to expand the technology? The company points to other investigative benefits overlooked by the study. “ShotSpotter spends a lot of money,” was Mares’s answer.
ShotSpotter does, however, increase police presence in the neighborhoods where it is used — “disproportionately in minority neighborhoods,” according to Mares. In response, a company representative told The Intercept that the system’s placement is “not based on who’s living in the community. It’s based on, ‘where are the shootings?’” Still, for Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that has serious consequences.
“This is yet another surveillance technology that has the potential to victimize people based on their proximity to crime and overpolicing,” he said. “If you live in a neighborhood that has a gun violence problem, not only are you subjected to that, you are also subjected to the surveillance regime that comes along with it.”
As cries to “defund the police” resound in the streets and cities fly surveillance planes low over demonstrations, Operation Legend is the latest reminder of the magnitude, and consequence, of federal police spending. Advocates have long called for federal grant funding reform, with some results, but the government has continued to grow its police budget; just two Department of Justice grant programs, Byrne JAG and the Community Oriented Policing Services program, give out about a collective $750 million annually to law enforcement.
“Much of this equipment and technology is given under the guise of either narcotics, policing, or counterterrorism,” Guariglia said. “And, ultimately, a lot of it gets used to monitor protests.”
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