The Department of Homeland Security is under investigation for purchasing large stockpiles of ammunition, days before legislation was introduced that would restrict the amount a government agency can legally buy.
The Government Accountability Office is now conducting the investigation into the alleged DHS purchases, which is “just getting underway,” GAO spokesman Chuck Young told US News & World Report.
DHS officials have repeatedly denied stockpiling ammunition, but AP reports claim that the agency plans to buy more than 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition over the next four or five years, and has already bought 360,000 rounds of hollow point bullets and 1.5 billion rounds in 2012.
DHS claims that it is buying ammo in bulk to save money, but experts have pointed out that hollow point bullets cost nearly twice as much as full metal jacket rounds. They also explode on impact for maximum damage, which has caused some Americans to wonder what purpose they would serve the DHS domestically. Purchasing 1.6 billion rounds of ammo would also give DHS the means to fight the equivalent of a 24-year Iraq War. Members of Congress say the DHS has repeatedly refused to tell them the purpose of procuring such large amounts of ammo.
“They have no answer for that question,” Congressman Timothy Huelscamp told Infowars in March, pointing out that the purchases are being made at a time when sequestration should be limiting the agency’s spending. “…We’re going to find out… I say we don’t fund them until we get an answer.”
DHS officials testified last week that it was only planning to purchase up to 750 million rounds of ammunition for training centers and law enforcement over the next five years. The agency’s spokesman, Peter Boogaard, told Congress that the media reports are ‘misleading’. But Boogard also mentioned a second five-year contract for up to 450 million rounds of ammunition for law enforcement purposes. Together, the two DHS contracts for ammunition would result in purchases of up to 1.2 billion rounds of ammo.
“With more than 100,000 armed law enforcement personnel in DHS, significant quantities of ammunition are used to support law enforcement operations, quarterly qualifications, and training, to include advanced firearms training exercises,” Boogard said.
But the DHS testimony did not provide an adequate explanation for the large amount of ammo it plans to procure, prompting a GAO investigation at approximately the same time as the introduction of the AMMO Act.
The new legislation, which was introduced in both the Senate and the House on Friday, would prevent government agencies from buying any more ammunition if its stockpiles are already larger than what they were in previous presidential administrations.
Proponents of the bill suspect that government agencies may be making large ammunition purchases to keep the supplies out of the hands of Americans at a time when the administration has been trying to reduce gun violence.
“President Obama has been adamant about curbing law-abiding Americans’ access and opportunities to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” US Sen. Jim Inhofe, who introduced the bill, said in a news release. “One way the Obama Administration is able to do this is by limiting what’s available in the market with federal agencies purchasing unnecessary stockpiles of ammunition… [DHS] has two years worth of ammo on hand and allots nearly 1,000 more rounds of ammunition for DHS officers than is used on average by our Army officers.”
Congressman Frank Lucas cited an ammunition shortage in Oklahoma and blamed the DHS for taking away Americans’ Second Amendment rights by removing ammo from the market.
The GAO investigation will attempt to determine whether there truly is a reason for the large ammo purchases, or whether DHS is simply buying large quantities to save money in the long run.
Homeland Security Approves Seizure of Cell Phones and Laptops within 100 Miles of Border; Report Remains Secret
Americans have no Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures if they happen to be within 100 miles of the border, according to the “Executive Summary” of a still-secret report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As the ACLU-created map above shows, nearly 2/3 of Americans (197 million people)—including the entire populations of Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, DC, and Michigan—live in this “Constitution free” zone, as do the residents of the nation’s five most populous cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia.
The secret report is DHS’s response (two years late) to critics of its policy, in place since at least 2008, of allowing border control agents, without a warrant or even a suspicion of wrongdoing, to search any travelers’ electronic devices (laptops, cell phones, tablets, cameras, etc.) and seize data they find. According to a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) filed three years ago by the ACLU, DHS subjected more than 6,500 travelers—nearly half of them U.S. citizens—to searches under this policy between October 2008 and June 2010.
The Executive Summary of the secret report, which DHS is allowing the public to see, sets forth its conclusions without even summarizing the reasoning underlying them. Thus it asserts that “imposing a requirement that officers have reasonable suspicion in order to conduct a border search of an electronic device would be operationally harmful without concomitant civil rights/civil liberties benefits,” but is silent on how DHS defines “civil rights/civil liberties benefits” or how it balances these against its institutional needs.
The ACLU, which has already filed an FOIA request demanding the full report, released a statement arguing that “allowing government agents to search through all of a traveler’s data without reasonable suspicion is completely incompatible with our fundamental rights: our Fourth Amendment right to privacy—and more specifically the right to be free from unreasonable searches—is implicated when the government can rummage through our computers and cell phones for no reason other than that we happen to have traveled abroad. Suspicionless searches also open the door to profiling based on perceived or actual race, ethnicity, or religion. And our First Amendment rights to free speech and free association are inhibited when agents at the border can target us for searches based on our exercise of those rights.”
To Learn More:
DHS Watchdog OKs ‘Suspicionless’ Seizure of Electronic Devices Along Border (by David Kravets, Wired)
Senate Report: Counterterrorism “Fusion Centers” Invade Innocent Americans’ Privacy and Don’t Stop Terrorism
The Department of Homeland Security’s 70 counterterrrorism “fusion centers” produce “predominantly useless information,” “a bunch of crap,” while “running afoul of departmental guidelines meant to guard against civil liberties” and are “possibly in violation of the Privacy Act.”
These may sound like the words of EFF, but in fact, these conclusions come from a new report issued by a US Senate committee. At the cost of up to $1.4 billion, these fusion centers are supposed to facilitate local law enforcement sharing of valuable counterterrorism information to DHS, but according to the report, they do almost everything but.
DHS described its fusion centers as “one of the centerpieces of [its] counterterrorism strategy” and its database was supposed to be a central repository of known or “appropriately suspected” terrorists. In theory, local law enforcement officers, in conjunction with DHS officials, conduct surveillance and write up a report—known as a Homeland Intelligence Report (HIR)—for DHS to review. If credible, DHS would then spread the information to the larger intelligence community.
Yet, the Senate report found the fusion centers failed to uncover a single terrorist threat. Instead, like so many post-9/11 surveillance laws passed under the vague guise of “national security,” the system was overwhelmingly used for ordinary criminal investigations, while at the same time facilitating an egregious amount of violations of innocent Americans’ rights.
An entire section of the Senate report is dedicated to Privacy Act violations and the collection of information completely unrelated to any criminal or terrorist activity in the HIRs. In one instance, a DHS intelligence officer filed a draft report about a US citizen who appeared at a Muslim organization to deliver a day-long motivational talk and a lecture on positive parenting. In another, one intelligence officer decided to report on two men who were fishing at the US-Mexican border. A reviewer commented, “I… think that this should never have been nominated for production, nor passed through three reviews.” A report was even initiated on a motorcycle group for passing out leaflets informing members of their legal rights. A reviewer commented, “The advice given to the groups’ members is protected by the First Amendment.”
Over and over again the Senate report quotes reviewers chastising DHS officials for recording constitutionally protected activities and for publishing such reports. One reviewer wrote, “The number of things that scare me about this report are almost too many to write into this [review] form.” In some cases, DHS retained cancelled draft reports that may have contained information in violation of the Privacy Act for a year or more after the date of the reports’ cancellation. Worse, the intelligence officials responsible “faced no apparent sanction for their transgressions.”
While it’s commendable the Senate exposing these civil liberties violations, the problems detailed in the report are not new. Since the government started its various information sharing programs after 9/11, media organizations have extensively documented how, when they’re not being outright abused by local law enforcement, are overwhelmingly used for ordinary investigations that had nothing to do with terrorism. EFF has long warned that completely innocent Americans’ privacy has become collateral damage in the government’s thirst to collect more and more digital information on its own citizens.
Even DHS’ own internal audits of the fusion centers showed they didn’t work, according to the Senate report. The privacy disaster is also a boondoggle for taxpayers: DHS can’t account for much of the money it spent on the program, estimating they spent between $289 million and $1.4 billion—a discrepancy of more than $900 million dollars.
Despite these facts, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines in March for the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) that dramatically expanded the NCTC’s information sharing powers. The NCTC can now mirror entire federal databases containing personal information and hold onto the information for ten times longer than they could before—even if the person is not suspected of any involvement in terrorism. Journalist Marcy Wheeler summed up the new guidelines at the time, saying, “So…the data the government keeps to track our travel, our taxes, our benefits, our identity? It just got transformed from bureaucratic data into national security intelligence.”
Now that the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has issued this unusually harsh report lambasting the same type of information sharing centers, Eric Holder should also rescind his new data retention guidelines for NCTC counterterrorism centers until new safeguards are put in place. EFF also joins the ACLU’s call for full Congressional hearings on the DHS fusion centers. In fact, the government should issue a moratorium on all fusion centers until this problem is fixed. Local governments can also prevent their law enforcement agencies from participating.
While “information sharing” centers were sold to the American people as providing “a vital role in keeping communities safe all across America,” it’s clear all they’ve done is play a vital role in violating American’s civil liberties.
Homeland Security claimed it had “dropped the plans at an early stage”
Newly released documents clearly show that the The Homeland Security Department continued to pursue a mobile surveillance program, moving radiation firing body scanners out of airports and into streets and shopping malls, despite claiming it has dropped the plans altogether.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) yesterday released the documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showing that the DHS was still operating the program in March 2011, just two days prior to claiming it had “dropped the projects in a very early phase after testing showed flaws”.
Previous EPIC FOIA work produced records showing that the DHS is actively moving to install radiation firing scanners in all manner of public places.
The technologies include “intelligent video,” backscatter x-ray, Millimeter Wave Radar, and Terahertz Wave, and could be deployed at subway platforms, sidewalks, sports arenas, and shopping malls.
EPIC filed a specific lawsuit against the DHS for attempting to keep the program secret.
EPIC’s suit asked a federal court to order disclosure of nearly 1,000 pages of additional records detailing the controversial program – records the agency repeatedly refused to make public, despite freedom of information requests and appeals over the course of several months.
The lawsuit points to an agency under the DHS umbrella, the Science and Technology Directorate, which has released only 15 full pages of documents on the mobile scanners, whilst heavily redacting another 158 pages and withholding 983 pages of documents.
In February 2011, EPIC discovered (PDF) that the DHS had paid contractors “millions of dollars on mobile body scanner technology that could be used at railways, stadiums, and elsewhere” on crowds of moving people.
According to the documents obtained by EPIC, the Transport Security Agency plans to expand the use of these systems to peer under clothes and inside bags away from airports.
The documents included a “Surface Transportation Security Priority Assessment” [PDF] which revealed details of conducting risk assessments and possible implementation of body scanners in “Mass transit, commuter and long-distance passenger rail, freight rail, commercial vehicles (including intercity buses), and pipelines, and related infrastructure (including roads and highways), that are within the territory of the United States.”
The DHS maintained that it had discontinued the program, but refused to provide the proof, invoking several FOIA exemption clauses, ironically including one that cited “invasion of personal privacy”.
EPIC also noted that the DHS has actively deployed “mobile body scanner technology in vans that are able to scan other vehicles while driving down public roadways.”
“These vans, known as ‘Z Backscatter Vans,’ are capable of seeing through vehicles and clothing and routinely store the images that they generate.” EPIC’s lawsuit notes.
As we previously reported, while the focus remained on the TSA’s use of naked body scanners at airports, the feds had already purchased hundreds of x-ray scanners mounted in vans that were being used to randomly scan vehicles, passengers and homes in complete violation of the 4th amendment and with wanton disregard for any health consequences.
WSBTV reported on one instance of the mobile scanners being used to check trucks for explosive devices at an internal checkpoint set up by Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, and the TSA. Officials admitted there was no specific threat that justified the checkpoint, and although it was labeled a “counter-terror operation,” the scans were also being conducted in the name of “safety”.
EPIC will continue to pursue the case in an attempt to discover whether the DHS still plans to roll out mobile body scanners across America.
- Court Orders TSA to Explain Lawless Use of Naked Body Scanners (thenewamerican.com)
- TSA flouts the law on body scanners (juneauempire.com)
MIT’s Technology Review has an article today on research that is underway to make extremely sensitive and rapid molecular sensors—aka “artificial noses”—that are so thin they could even be integrated into paper or textiles.
The use of particle detectors and chemical sensors to identify tiny amounts of chemicals or odors is an area that we’ve been keeping an eye on for a while—something we file under “possible future privacy-invasive technologies.” As Technology Review describes it, this technology
rapidly detects volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—gases in our surrounding environment that are produced by a wide variety of sources, everything from household paints to a person’s own skin. Many do not have an odor, but an electronic sensor could alert a user to the presence of harmful chemicals or perhaps indicate that something is off-kilter with a user’s health.
The main context in which Americans have encountered chemical sensors so far is in bomb detection—mainly at the airport when they or their belongings are swabbed and tested for traces of explosives. A “puffer machine” that blows air on passengers standing inside a booth was also tested for a while but found to be so far impractical for mass deployment. We’ve never had a problem with particle detectors; as long as they are tuned only to look for explosives, they do not raise substantial privacy concerns, as explosives are not something people normally have. (We have pointed out that there can be questions about their effectiveness, and the importance of treating people who “alarm” properly given that false negatives are probable.)
But such deployments may be only the beginning. Here are some other chemical detection efforts that we have seen already:
• DHS has been working on a scheme to place chemical sensors in cell phones so that every American becomes a roaming chemical sensor able to alert the authorities to the release of chemical toxins resulting from accidents or terrorist plots.
• Companies are selling sensitive drug-sniffing products that go way beyond breathalyzers, such as contactless hand-held scanners that claim to be able to detect trace amounts of drugs on virtually all surfaces, including skin and clothing.
• DHS is also researching the use of body odor as a unique identifier or “odor fingerprint.” In theory, if that panned out, cheap and pervasive sensors could identify you everywhere you go.
• As part of the same project, DHS is also researching their use “as an indicator of deception”—in short, they are pursuing that perennial chimera, a lie detector. While lie detection is a fool’s errand, it’s possible that odor detectors could reveal very crude facts about people’s emotional state.
• Researchers are developing techniques for detecting medical conditions including cancer, asthma, and many other diseases by detecting “trace amounts of distinctive biomarkers in their breath.” (Sounds great in the hands of your doctor; used secretly during a job interview or bank loan application, not so much.)
• Under a pilot program spearheaded by the White House’s “drug czar” in 2006, the government tested sewage from treatment plants in the Washington, D.C. area to measure the amount of trace cocaine that was present. This was done in an effort to estimate the level of drug use in those communities. It did not reveal anything about specific individuals.
The breadth of activity in this area makes it clear that if this technology continues to advance rapidly and becomes cheap and widespread as so many other technologies have in recent years, we will be facing an entirely new set of privacy issues. A whole new range of facts about ourselves (health conditions; emotional state; drug, alcohol and pharmaceutical use; our identity) could become open to unwelcome scrutiny by others (government, employers, insurance companies, nosy neighbors).
Sometimes such technologies get scary very fast; other times they don’t turn out to be a problem. We’ll be watching closely.
- A Flexible Nerve-Gas Sensor (cen.acs.org)
- Electronic nose out in front (phys.org)
- A Nose in Your Clothes (technologyreview.com)
- Global Chemical Sensors Market to Reach $17.28 Billion by 2015, According to New Report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. (prweb.com)
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been paying a defense contractor $11.4 million to monitor social media websites and other Internet communications to find criticisms of the department’s policies and actions.
A government watchdog organization, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), obtained hundreds of documents from DHS through the Freedom of Information Act and found details of the arrangement with General Dynamics. The company was contracted to monitor the Web for “reports that reflect adversely on DHS,” including sub-agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In testimony submitted to the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, Ginger McCall, director of EPIC’s Open Government Project, stated that “the agency is monitoring constantly, under very broad search terms, and is not limiting that monitoring to events or activities related to natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or manmade disasters….The DHS has no legal authority to engage in this monitoring.”
McCall added: “This has a profound effect on free speech online if you feel like a government law enforcement agency—particularly the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to look for terrorists—is monitoring your criticism, your dissent, of the government.”
- Lawmaker Demands DHS Cease Monitoring Blogs, Social Media (wired.com)
- Homeland Security monitors journalists (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Twitter Followers: Yours May Include Homeland Security (news.dice.com)