Privacy SOS

Money for nothing: the drug war and the war on Muslims

Just last week, we warned in this very space about the fluid connections binding the misguided wars on drugs and terror. Today the AP continues its blockbuster series on NYPD spying with yet another troublesome revelation, underscoring the connection and adding further fuel to the fire calling for a reigning in of police-gone-wild powers deployed to pursue the two domestic "wars." 

Reports and interviews with officials by AP reporters reveal that money from a White House drug war program partially funded the intelligence division responsible for ethnically and religiously profiling and spying on Muslims throughout the northeast. The NYPD spying program against Muslims largely continues to this day, operating with public approval from Mayor Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly.

The latest revelations point to a central problem in national funding for local policing initiatives, which has exploded in growth over the past ten years. AP learned that $135 million from the White House's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, or HIDTA, was granted to police in New York and New Jersey alone since the program was initiated after September 11, 2001. But because there is little to no oversight governing the funding stream, neither local nor federal officials are sure exactly how that money was spent, or for which investigations equipment purchases made with the HIDTA money have been employed.

From the AP report:

The White House HIDTA grant program was established at the height of the drug war to help police fight drug gangs and unravel supply routes. It has provided about $2.3 billion to local authorities in the past decade.

After the terror attacks, law enforcement was allowed to use some of that money to fight terrorism. It's unclear how much HIDTA money has been used to pay for the intelligence division, in part because NYPD intelligence operations receive scant oversight in New York.

Congress, which approves the money for the program, is not provided with a detailed breakdown of activities. None of the NYPD's clandestine programs is cited in the New York-New Jersey region's annual reports to Congress between 2006 and 2010.
That the government has been funding local law enforcement for both drug war and war on terror related policing is not news.
The Center for Investigative Reporting found that DHS alone shelled out over $34 billion to state and local law enforcement between 2001 and 2011. The Department of Justice gives into the hundreds of millions of dollars in technology, training and staffing aid to state and local police each year, as well. We at the ACLU of Massachusetts found that even the National Highway Administration, a division of the federal Department of Transportation, has gotten in on the surveillance grants: in 2010, the agency gave the state of Massachusetts $500,000 to purchase Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology for police departments statewide.

Like all federal funding to local police, the White House HIDTA money that went to New York and New Jersey is hard to track. But the intrepid AP reporters nailed down a few specific examples of direct transfers from the HIDTA program to the Muslim spying scandal. Computers purchased for HIDTA investigations were used to compile the dossiers on Muslims and Muslim restaurants and mosques that were sent to Commissioner Ray Kelly's desk. Cars and license plate tracking equipment purchased with HIDTA funds were used to surveil Muslims at mosques and to track the license plate numbers of worshippers coming and going.

These revelations underscore the need for transparency and clearer rules governing federal funding of local police departments. DOJ Byrne Justice grants, which pay police salaries, are one thing; it's something else entirely to have federal funding streams nearly or entirely dedicated to setting up unaccountable, secretive fusion centers, surveillance regimes, and information sharing systems that break down barriers between state and local police on the one hand, and the FBI, DHS, the CIA and the military on the other. The latest AP story shows us what happens when local police departments become increasingly integrated with the federal government: it translates directly into a loss of local control and access to information. We haven't figured out how to reverse this trend yet, but investigations like this are a good start. After all, we can't do something about a problem we don't know exists.

Among the questions this kind of investigation raises is: what the hell is going on with fusion centers? The HIDTA funding of NYPD surveillance operations via its intelligence unit points to the ways in which terrorism fusion and drug fusion intelligence processes have become nearly indistinguishable. Fusion centers are a nexus where this muddling of wars takes place.

And the problem likely isn't confined to the Tri-State Area: there are HIDTA fusion centers or operations in nearly every region of the country (map here), including in New England. The New England HIDTA counts among its sources the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, the Boston Police Department's fusion center. (Map above left; click to enlarge.)

That the drug war and the "war on terror" are intimately connected in the world of policing cannot be contested. Money comes in for "terrorism" investigations and ends up spent tracking gang suspects. Or, as with the case of the NYPD and HIDTA, the money comes in for drug investigations and winds up being directed towards an improper, dragnet, religiously-motivated fishing expedition that somehow positions itself as a "heroic" battle in the never-ending "war on terror."

How are we going to take back control over our local police departments when they are receiving so much money from the federal government, through an unaccountable and opaque granting system? The first step is finding out what's going on. 

Maybe it's a good thing that the White House is now directly implicated in this scandal. After all, last week, when unveiling his administration's new consumer privacy initiative, President Obama said that privacy "has been at the heart of our democracy from its inception, and we need it now more than ever." 

He should follow up those nice words with some concrete action. Complete transparency and extensive auditing of federal spending on local technology and policing would be a great start.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.