The Center for Investigative Reporting has offered up numerous stories by now of communities running into trouble with federal grants awarded to them by Washington for anti-terrorism and preparedness purposes. But one of the most politically intriguing so far surfaced in early October.
That’s when the Department of Homeland Security told local authorities in Hinds County, Miss., that they needed to return public-safety equipment purchased with the funds that went unused. The list of questioned gear apparently accumulating dust included tanks for oxygen masks, four-wheelers, search-and-rescue tools and even “heavy-duty trucks,” according to one local news account.
What did that news account neglect to mention? Hinds County is represented by Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson, chair of the powerful House Homeland Security Committee. Thompson doesn’t just back the $33 billion Congress has handed out in readiness grants to states and local communities since 2002. He’s chided FEMA for trying to implement a policy that would have required grantees to use their own money for maintaining equipment they’d already bought.
The goal behind homeland security grants was in part to create new preparedness capabilities that didn’t previously exist, not for state and local governments to pass on as many costs as possible they didn’t want to the federal government. But lawmakers endlessly hear complaints from constituents (i.e. powerful police chiefs, sheriffs and mayors) that they’re never receiving enough in grant cash. Here’s what Thompson said about the matter late last year:
In these tough economic times, this FEMA policy change risks putting critical national capabilities in jeopardy if grantees cannot use homeland security funds to maintain WMD, interoperable communications, and other counter-terrorism equipment.
Now, at least, Hinds County won’t have to worry about buying new tires for its four-wheelers.
Counterterrorism officials from Western countries say extremist web sites have skyrocketed from just a dozen in 1998 to 4,500 in 2006. At least that’s what Interpol’s secretary general said to conference goers in September. Elevated Risk can’t help but wonder if thousands of such sites were newly created during that time period, or if authorities designated existing sites as extremist while deciding what to monitor.
The UK set up a special Internet referral unit after the London suicide bombings in 2005 that killed more than 50 people. The team’s chief told Reuters Oct. 4 that investigators are careful about what sites they treat as dangerous. “Even very extreme sites don’t breach UK legislation,” she said.
Federal prosecutors indicted a State Department clerk for allegedly conducting database searches of over 100 celebrities and their family members using her government-issued computer. According to an Oct. 6 story from the New York Post, her list of targets included “various celebrities, actors, reality-television contestants, television personalities, musicians, models [and] athletes.”
Such scandals are exactly what worry privacy advocates about the government’s never-ending accumulation of sensitive personal data. Unauthorized searches by government employees are far from uncommon. Elevated Risk hopes to have more on this later in the week.
Wired’s Threat Level blog reported in compelling detail Oct. 7 the story of Yasir Afifi, a 20-year-old California student born in the United States who found an FBI tracking device on his car. The equipment was discovered after Afifi took the car to a mechanic for repairs.
Not sure what it was in the beginning, Afifi posted photos of the device online. That prompted a visit from the FBI and a series of questions from agents asking if Afifi knew anyone who had traveled to Yemen or was associated with foreign terrorist training camps. An ACLU director in Washington State said authorities were spying on Afifi for no reason other than the fact that he’s half-Egyptian.
An investigative reporter in Ohio caught up with a local intelligence fusion center there and concluded that after three years of existence, the Northeast Ohio Regional Fusion Center “had produced few, if any, significant results.” The federal government has helped finance dozens of new so-called fusion centers across the country since Sept. 11 to promote better intelligence collection, analysis and sharing among law-enforcement agencies.
But congressional investigators said in a report recently that their contributions to the war on terror have not been meaningfully assessed. As we pointed out last week, fusion centers rely heavily on cash from federal anti-terrorism and preparedness grants. So far that price tag has reached $426 million since 2004.
Source: Government Accountability Office
Our friends at the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica on Oct. 8 took a hard look at one troubled case involving a Guantánamo Bay detainee named Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, accused by the government of working for Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
ProPublica says key passages disappeared or were changed in the publicly available version of a judge’s opinion stemming from the case, including skepticism that government witnesses against Uthman were credible:
The alterations are extensive. Sentences are rewritten. Footnotes that described disputes and discrepancies in the government’s case were deleted. Even the date and circumstances of Uthman’s arrest were changed. … Disclosure of the Uthman case comes at a pivotal moment in the government’s complicated efforts to prosecute detainees and close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. On Oct. 6, a federal judge in New York barred the government from using its main witness against a terrorism defendant because the information that led investigators to the witness was obtained through torture.