One of the oldest and most storied traditions of the Senate made a sudden return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday when a junior senator seized control of the chamber with an hours-long filibuster involving rambling speeches aimed at blocking a vote on President Obama’s choice to lead the CIA.
Led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) with help from other junior senators, the filibuster was aimed at drawing attention to deep concern on both sides of the aisle about the administration’s use of unmanned aerial drones in its fight against terrorists and whether the government would ever use them in the United States.
Shortly before noon, Paul — the scion of a political family at the heart of the libertarian movement — came to the Senate floor and declared his opposition to the nomination of John O. Brennan, Obama’s choice to lead the spy agency, who has overseen the drone program.
“I will speak until I can no longer speak,” Paul said as he began. “I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched a nationwide campaign to assess police militarization in the United States. Starting Wednesday, ACLU affiliates in 23 states are sending open records requests to hundreds of state and local police agencies requesting information about their SWAT teams, such as how often and for what reasons they’re deployed, what types of weapons they use, how often citizens are injured during SWAT raids, and how they’re funded. More affiliates may join the effort in the coming weeks.
Additionally, the affiliates will ask for information about drones, GPS tracking devices, how much military equipment the police agencies have obtained through programs run through the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, and how often and for what purpose state National Guards are participating in enforcement of drug laws.
“We’ve known for a while now that American neighborhoods are increasingly being policed by cops armed with the weapons and tactics of war,” said Kara Dansky, senior counsel at the ACLU’s Center for Justice, which is coordinating the investigation. “The aim of this investigation is to find out just how pervasive this is, and to what extent federal funding is incentivizing this trend.”
The Obama Administration could use lethal force on Americans within the United States and without trial during “an extraordinary circumstance,” Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday.
In a letter to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Holder said the Administration favored the use of law enforcement over the military when it came to fighting terrorist threats within the country. However, Holder refused to rule out the possibility that the President of the United States could use a drone strike on U.S. soil in an extreme situation.
“As members of this administration have previously indicated, the US government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so,” he wrote. “As a policy matter moreover, we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has customized its Predator drones, originally built for overseas military operations, to carry out at-home surveillance tasks that have civil libertarians worried: identifying civilians carrying guns and tracking their cell phones, government documents show.
The documents provide more details about the surveillance capabilities of the department’s unmanned Predator B drones, which are primarily used to patrol the United States’ northern and southern borders but have been pressed into service on behalf of a growing number of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, the Secret Service, the Texas Rangers, and local police.
Homeland Security’s specifications for its drones, built by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, say they “shall be capable of identifying a standing human being at night as likely armed or not,” meaning carrying a shotgun or rifle. They also specify “signals interception” technology that can capture communications in the frequency ranges used by mobile phones, and “direction finding” technology that can identify the locations of mobile devices or two-way radios.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained a partially redacted copy of Homeland Security’s requirements for its drone fleet through the Freedom of Information Act and published it this week. CNET unearthed an unredacted copy of the requirements that provides additional information about the aircraft’s surveillance capabilities.
Homeland Security’s Predator B drone can stay aloft conducting surveillance for 20 hours.(Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security)
Concern about domestic use of drones is growing, with federal legislation introduced last month that would establish legal safeguards, in addition to parallel efforts underway from state and local lawmakers. The Federal Aviation Administration recently said that it will “address privacy-related data collection” by drones.
The prospect of identifying armed Americans concerns Second Amendment advocates, who say that technology billed as securing the United States’ land and maritime borders should not be used domestically. Michael Kostelnik, the Homeland Security official who created the program, told Congress that the drone fleet would be available to “respond to emergency missions across the country,” and a Predator drone was dispatched to the tiny town of Lakota, N.D., to aid local police in a dispute that began with reimbursement for feeding six cows. The defendant, arrested with the help of Predator surveillance, lost a preliminary bid to dismiss the charges.
“I am very concerned that this technology will be used against law-abiding American firearms owners,” says Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation. “This could violate Fourth Amendment rights as well as Second Amendment rights.”
Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency declined to answer questions about whether direction-finding technology is currently in use on its drone fleet. A representative provided CNET with a statement about the agency’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that said signals interception capability is not currently used:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is not deploying signals interception capabilities on its UAS fleet. Any potential deployment of such technology in the future would be implemented in full consideration of civil rights, civil liberties, and privacy interests and in a manner consistent with the law and long-standing law enforcement practices.CBP’s UAS program is a vital border security asset. Equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and day-and-night cameras, the UAS provides real-time images to frontline agents to more effectively and efficiently secure the nation’s borders. As a force multiplier, the UAS operates for extended periods of time and allows CBP to safely conduct missions over tough-to-reach terrain. The UAS also provides agents on the ground with added situational awareness to more safely resolve dangerous situations.
During his appearance before the House Homeland Security committee, Kostelnik, a retired Air Force major general who recently left the agency, testified that the drones’ direction-finding ability is part of a set of “DOD capabilities that are being tested or adopted by CBP to enhance UAS performance for homeland security.” CBP currently has 10 Predator drones and is considering buying up to 14 more.
If the Predator drones were used only to identify smugglers or illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders, or for disaster relief, they might not be especially controversial. But their use domestically by other government agencies has become routine enough — and expensive enough — that Homeland Security’s inspector general said (PDF) last year that CBP needs to sign agreements “for reimbursement of expenses incurred fulfilling mission requests.”
“The documents clearly evidence that the Department of Homeland Security is developing drones with signals interception technology and the capability to identify people on the ground,” says Ginger McCall, director of the Open Government Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “This allows for invasive surveillance, including potential communications surveillance, that could run afoul of federal privacy laws.”
A Homeland Security official, who did not want to be identified by name, said the drones are able to identify whether movement on the ground comes from a human or an animal, but that they do not perform facial recognition. The official also said that because the unarmed drones have a long anticipated life span, the department tries to plan ahead for future uses to support its border security mission, and that aerial surveillance would comply with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and other applicable federal laws.
The documents show that CBP specified that the “tracking accuracy should be sufficient to allow target designation,” and the agency notes on its Web site that its Predator B series is capable of “targeting and weapons delivery” (the military version carries multiple 100-pound Hellfire missiles). CBP says, however, that its Predator aircraft are unarmed.
Gene Hoffman, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who’s the chairman of the Calguns Foundation, said CBP “needs to be very careful with attempts to identify armed individuals in the border area” when aerial surveillance touches on a constitutional right.
“In the border area of California and Arizona, it may be actively dangerous for the law-abiding to not carry firearms precisely due to the illegal flow of drugs and immigrants across the border in those areas,” Hoffman says.
CBP’s specifications say that signals interception and direction-finding technology must work from 30MHz to 3GHz in the radio spectrum. That sweeps in the GSM and CDMA frequencies used by mobile phones, which are in the 300MHz to 2.7GHz range, as well as many two-way radios.
The specifications say: “The system shall provide automatic and manual DF of multiple signals simultaneously. Automatic DF should be able to separate out individual communication links.” Automated direction-finding for cell phones has become an off-the-shelf technology: one company sells a unit that its literature says is “capable of taking the bearing of every mobile phone active in a channel.”
Although CBP’s unmanned Predator aircraft are commonly called drones, they’re remotely piloted by FAA-licensed operators on the ground. They can fly for up to 20 hours and carry a payload of about 500 lbs
There has been speculation regarding President Obama’s “citizen army”. In 2008, President Obama made statements regarding a “civilian national security force”. Since that day, many have been curious as to what President Obama had in mind when he made that statement. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY13) may have just given a bit of insight into what was meant when he introduced H.R. 748 last week.
“We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded,” Obama said as a candidate in 2008.
H.R. 748 would require all persons in the United States between the ages of 18 and 25 to perform “national service”. These persons in the United States would either serve the country as a member of uniformed services or as civilian service. The civilian service could be served with a Federal, State, or local government program. The local government programs include community-based organizations. H.R. 748 would “authorize the induction of persons in the uniformed services during wartime to meet end-strength requirements of the uniformed services, to provide for the registration of women under the Military Selective Service Act, and for other purposes”
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA (BNO NEWS) — Immigration officials at Los Angeles International Airport briefly detained the Palestinian filmmaker of the Oscar-nominated documentary “5 Broken Cameras” while he was on his way to a dinner preceding Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Emad Burnat said the incident happened on Tuesday evening when he, along with his wife and 8-year-old son, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport after a flight from Turkey. He said he was questioned for more than an hour as immigration officials threatened to refuse him entry to the United States if he was unable to provide proof of his Oscar nomination.
“They told me that if I couldn’t prove the reason for my visit, my wife Soraya, my son Gibreel and I would be sent back to Turkey on the same day,” Burnat, whose “5 Broken Cameras” is competing for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category, said in a statement on Wednesday.
The family was on its way to Beverly Hills to attend a dinner honoring the five nominated films for Best Documentary Feature. “5 Broken Cameras,” which features a Palestinian farmer’s non-violent resistance against the actions of the Israeli army, is the first Palestinian documentary ever nominated for an Oscar.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, who is a governor of the Academy’s Documentary Branch, said Burnat and his family had already spent nearly 6 hours at an Israeli checkpoint as they drove to the Jordanian city of Amman to catch a plane. “While we awaited Emad’s arrival from the airport I received an urgent text from Emad, written to me from a holding pen at the Los Angeles International Airport,” he said.
Moore said immigration officials did not believe Burnat, a Palestinian olive farmer, when he told them he was on his way to Sunday’s Academy Awards and events preceding it. “Apparently that was too much for Homeland Security to wrap its head around,” said Moore, who immediately stepped in to help resolve the situation.
After more than 40 minutes of questioning, Burnat said his son Gibreel asked him why they were still being held in the small detention room at the airport. “I simply told him the truth: ‘Maybe we’ll have to go back.’ I could see his heart sink,” the Palestinian filmmaker said in his statement.
Moore said he immediately contacted Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and COO Ric Robertson after receiving Burnat’s plea for help. “They got ahold of the Academy’s attorney who is also partners with a top immigration attorney and they went to work on it,” he said. “I called the State Department in D.C.”
“After being held for somewhere between one and two hours, with repeated suggestions that the U.S. may not let him into the country – saying that they may send him back home – the authorities relented and released Emad and his family,” Moore said, describing Burnat as “fairly shaken and upset” when he arrived at the dinner.
Two out of every three people reading this could have your electronic devices searched, without there being any reasonable suspicion, because the Department of Homeland Security has decided that such search and seizures do not violate your Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Border agents don’t need probable cause and they don’t need a stinking warrant since they don’t need to prove any reasonable suspicion first. Nor, sadly, do two out of three people have First Amendment protection; it is as if DHS has voided those Constitutional amendments and protections they provide to nearly 200 million Americans.
Those numbers come from the ACLU’s estimates of how many people live within 100 miles of the United States border, since Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CLCR) concluded that border searches of electronic devices do not violate the Fourth Amendment. Previously, the ACLU called this area the Constitution-Free Zone and provided a map showing how many people within states along the all our borders are affected without constitutional rights. The estimate is that nearly two out of three Americans live in the Constitution-Free Zone.
VATICAN CITY — Guests at the going-away party for Carlo Maria Viganò couldn’t understand why the archbishop looked so forlorn. Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Viganò ambassador to the United States, a plum post where he would settle into a stately mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, across the street from the vice president’s residence.
“He went through the ordeal making it very clear he was unhappy with it,” said one former ambassador to the Vatican, who attended the Vatican Gardens ceremony in the late summer of 2011. “And we just couldn’t figure out, us outsiders and non-Italians, what was going on.”
MCALLEN, TEXAS (AP) — The family of a U.S. Customs Enforcement agent killed in a 2011 ambush on a Mexican highway and another agent who survived are suing the government and others.
The federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Brownsville arises from the Feb. 15, 2011, attack on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila.
They were attacked in their armored SUV near San Luis Potosi, Mexico.
Zapata died, and Avila was seriously wounded.
The lawsuit names the agents’ supervisors among nearly two dozen others. It alleges that Zapata and Avila never should have been sent on the dangerous mission, their armored SUV was flawed and at least two of the guns used in the attack were bought in the United States.
Menendez opposed U.S. giving security equipment to Dominicans (so his donor would get the $1.6 Billion-contract?)
By Eric Lipton and William K. Rashbaum
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., sought to discourage any plan by the U.S. government to donate port-security equipment to the Dominican Republic, citing concern that the screening gear might undermine efforts by a private company — run by a major campaign contributor and friend of his — to do the work.
The intervention came shortly after the senator’s friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen, arranged to meet with a senior State Department official, accompanied by a former aide to Menendez, in a related push to protect a port-security contract, worth as much as $500 million over 20 years.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department declined to comment, with a State Department official citing an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee into related matters.
But Menendez has rejected any suggestion that his official actions have been driven by an effort to favor Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist, who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Senate Democrats and Menendez’s re-election campaign.
Aides have acknowledged that Menendez had spoken to State Department officials about the port security contract, which the Dominican government was refusing to honor; the senator questioned other administration officials about it, as well. But in recently obtained emails, the degree to which Menendez sought to intervene on behalf of Melgen’s interests became clearer.
In a January email exchange with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, Menendez’s staff did not mention Melgen or his company, Border Support Services, by name.
But the aide asked if the U.S. government was planning to donate additional port-security equipment to the Dominican Republic. The aide explained that if such a donation occurred, the Dominican government, perhaps under pressure from criminal elements, might limit the use of the equipment so contraband could still flow through the country’s ports on the way to the United States.