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Drones in Texas and Tanks in Tampa: Inside the Out-Of-Control Weaponized Homeland Security State

Government budgets at every level now include allocations aimed at fighting an ephemeral “War on Terror” in the United States.

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When Mulhern suggested that some of the windfall $50 million might be used to help the city’s growing homeless population, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn set her straight. “We can’t be diverted from what the appropriate use of that money is, and that is to provide a safe environment for the convention.  It’s not to be used for pet projects or things totally unrelated to security.”

Tampa will also be spending more than $1 million for state of the art digital video uplinks to surveillance helicopters.  (“Analog technology is almost Stone Age,” commented one approving council member.) Another $2 million will go to install 60 surveillance cameras on city streets. That represents an uncharacteristic pullback from the city’s initial plan to acquire more than 230 cameras as well as two drones at a cost of about $5 million. Even the police deemed that too expensive -- for the moment.

All of this hardware will remain in Tampa after the Republicans and any protestors are long gone. What use will it serve then? In the Tampa area, the armored truck will join the armored fleet, police officials said, ferrying SWAT teams on calls and protecting police serving search warrants. In the past, Hamlin claimed, Tampa’s tanks have been shot at. He did not mention that crime rates in Tampa and across Florida are at four-decade lows.

The video surveillance cameras will, of course, also stay in place, streaming digitized images to an ever-growing database, where they will be stored waiting for the day when facial recognition software is employed to mix and match. This strategy is being followed all over the country, including in Chicago, with its huge video surveillance network, and New York City, where all of lower Manhattan is now on camera.

Tampa has already been down this road once in the post-9/11 era. The city was home to a much-watched experiment in using such software.  Images taken by cameras installed on the street were to be matched with photographs in a database of suspects. The system failed completely and was scrapped in 2003. On the other hand, sheriffs in the Tampa Bay area are currently using facial recognition software to match photographs snapped by police on the street with a database of suspects with outstanding warrants. Police are excited by that program and look forward to its future expansion.

The Rise of the Fusion Centers

Homeland Security has played a big role in creating one particularly potent element in the nation's expanding database network. Working with the Department of Justice in the wake of 9/11, it launched what has grown into 72 interlinked state “fusion centers” -- repositories for everything from Immigration Customs Enforcement data and photographs to local police reports and even gossip. “ Suspicious Activity Reports” gathered from public tipsters -- thanks to Homeland Security’s “if you see something, say something” program -- are now flowing into state centers. Those fusion centers are possibly the greatest facilitators of dish in history, and have vast potential for disseminating dubious information and stigmatizing purely political activity. And most Americans have never even heard of them. 

Yet fusion centers now operate in every state, centralizing intelligence gathering and facilitating dissemination of material of every sort across the country. Here is where information gathered by cops and citizens, FBI agents and immigration officers goes to fester. It is a staggering load of data, unevenly and sometimes questionably vetted, and it is ultimately available to any state or local law-enforcement officer, any immigration agent or official, any intelligence or security bureaucrat with a computer and network access.