May Day Keeps Militarized Police in the News; ACLU Looking Into Cops and Homeland Security

Reports from May 1 protests around the US, particularly in Seattle, may look disturbingly familiar to anyone worried about police militarization.

To be fair, this outlet suggests Seattle saw a contingent of aggressive marchers and rioters who were determined to provoke a response from law enforcement. Some protesters allegedly threw bottles and chunks of concrete at police who responded with pepper spray, and potentially-lethal flashbang grenades. Eight officers were injured, and 17 protesters arrested. Maybe some of those 17 deserved it.

But at least since Occupy led to middle class white kids being pepper sprayed, Tasered, and cuffed on Smartphone camera, the militarization of police has become worthy of general debate — and it must be debated. This week it was Mayday, the week before it was the heavy-handed manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers that provoked argument over the rightness of domestic policing turning jackbooted. Less common knowledge, and harder to suss out than police brutality footage on Youtube, though, is the close ties that the Department of Homeland Security has to law enforcement militarization. This is to the tune of billions of dollars in DHS loans for tanks, surveillance, and other tech that have helped turn Officer Friendly into the riot-ready or even war-ready soldiers you see at every protest, and sometimes at your doorstep.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union launched an investigation into this phenomenon. They’re calling the project “Towns Don’t Need Tanks.” So far they have “[f]iled over 260 public records requests with law enforcement agencies and National Guard offices to determine the extent to which federal funding and support has fueled the militarization of state and local police departments.”

It didn’t start with DHS, or fears of terrorism, however. Police have looked like soldiers — or even worked with them — since the days of ReaganSeveral 1980s amendments to the post-Reconstruction 1878 Posse Commitatus Act — designed to restrict the armed forces from turning into a domestic police force, ironically enough —  explicitly allow use of drug-fighting military tech by cops. Officers you see today are descended from hysteria and paranoia over narcotics, but they’ve got lots of different jobs to do now.

The Seattle protest perhaps wasn’t the poster child for outrageous police aggression against meek activists. However, it brings all the same questions about the status quo police reaction to nearly every threat. Alright, cops get to use pepper spray and flashbang grenades when they’re getting hit by bottles. But we have to ask where and when law enforcement who look like soldiers won’t be allowed such methods. SWAT and riot tactics are now the appropriate response to nonviolent protest and standing around at your own collegedrug usegambling, graffiti, and cockfighting. So why blink when anarchists in black blocs bring about police violence, too?

‘Everything Libertarians and Liberals Get Wrong About Drones’ Wrong About Drones, Everything

46th_Expeditionary_Reconnaissance_Squadron_MQ-1B_Predator_Balad_AB_IraqIn the past few days, two different Atlantic writers have worried that drones are a “sexy” subject which often overshadow other issues. Now, Andrew Cohen’s article isn’t really about war or drones. It’s a reminder that it’s not only Anwar al-Awlaki who didn’t get due process. Thousands of other Americans aren’t getting theirs either. (It’s well worth reading.)

Amitai Etzioni, sociologist and former adviser to Jimmy Carter, wrote a different sort of piece — “Everything Libertarians and Liberals Get Wrong About Drones” — in which he scornfully dubs drones “the new cause célèbre” of certain folks who are missing the point and worrying about the wrong things.

Troubled that there’s no presidential authority for drone strikes? Etzioni offers up the Authorization for Use of Military Force, as if that disturbingly-broad document is the answer to executive and legislative excess, as opposed to one of its strongest mechanisms. No Congressional oversight for the program? Congress is “regularly briefed.” (Some members of Congress get limited information about the program.)

Concerned that the Department of Justice’s lethal force mandate of “imminent threat” is incredibly vague? Well, terrorists don’t wear uniforms!!! Some people, writes Etzioni, actually think that terrorists deserve some kind of judicial justice, not just a Hellfire missile. But “why should terrorist suspects be granted all the gold-plated protections available to Americans”? (Cohen must have cringed there.)

What if drone strikes provoke hostility abroad? “[T]hose who are inclined towards terrorism already loathe the United States for a thousand other reasons.” Stories of Pakistani and Yemeni citizens frightened to leave the house because of drones? Well, “we often have to rely upon reports from locals, who are notoriously unreliable.”

Do drones make war easier? No, long ago, bombs and airplanes were thought to be cold, clinical methods of killing that would make bloodshed easier. (Well — aren’t they? How did World War II manage to wipe out 60 million people, if not in great part to the ease of death from thousands of feet above?) And, asks Etzioni:

Would the people involved in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and now in Africa be better-off if terrorists were killed in “hot” blood — say, knifed by Special Forces, blood and brain matter splashing in their faces? Would the world be better off if our troops, in order to reach the terrorists, had to endure improvised explosive devices blowing up their legs and arms and gauntlets of fire from AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers — traumatic experiences that turn some of them into psychopath-like killers?

Is it really just IEDs that lead to epidemic levels of Post-Traumatic Stress in veterans? Nothing soldiers do in war, or are trained to do, have anything to do with their often-fractured mental state? That deeply disingenuous paragraph is followed by another:

Beyond such considerations, there is so far no evidence that the extensive use of drones has made going to war more likely or its extension more acceptable. Anybody who has followed the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq despite the recent increase in drone strikes should know better.

Anyone who just wrote the words “Pakistan, Yemen, and now Africa” should know better as well. What exactly does Etzioni think is happening in those nations?

Near the end, Etzioni stumbles over a few shards of good point. Drones are not in themselves the same as a bad foreign policy. They’re morally neutral technology. Generally more important than how wars are fought is whether they should happen at all. Boots on the ground are always worst. But just because drones are currently a popular, convenient shorthand for war — the journalist, activist, and occasional politician’s hook for worrying about foreign adventures — doesn’t mean that the new technology doesn’t itself raise new worries. Regardless, let drones be the segue we use to talk about war, as long as we’re talking.

Obama Remembers Gitmo Exists, Says It’s ‘Not Necessary’ for American Safety

Obama troubledIn response to a question about the hunger strike currently sweeping the prison, President Obama today once again promised to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama spoke eloquently about the issue, saying “It is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing, it lessens co-operation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts, it is a recruitment tool for extremists, it needs to be closed.” He also said “Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe.”

Commendable, heartening words! Similar to ones said back in October when the president assured comedian Jon Stewart that the prison had to close.  Similar, too, to Obama’s speechifying while on the campaign trail in 2008.

Indeed, today’s press conference president sounded a bit like old Obama; that mythical creature who existed circa 2007-2009, and who was going to bring about transparency in government, stop the wars, be “cool” about drugs, and…close Gitmo.

And it sounds good every time he says it…Obama said today that his administration was going to “examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue. But ultimately, we’re also going to need some help from Congress.” Congress isn’t blameless, but there’s been more than 1500 days of Gitmo under Obama’s watch. If presidents are going to claim the staggering number of powers they currently possess — say, the power to put anyone, American citizen or not, on a kill list — it’s fair for them to bear the brunt of criticisms when inhumane institutions like Gitmo remain open, no?

Congress should be shamed for their inability to accept that Gitmo cannot continue forever. But there are very real things that Obama either should have done, can do, or can stop in order to begin the process of shutting down the prison.

Eighty-six men at Gitmo are cleared for release. If Obama was that interested in bringing back America’s standing in the world, he wouldn’t have signed the National Defense Authorization Act in 2011 and ’12. But that ship — along with indefinite detainment — has sailed. So what now? Currently around 90 of the 159 Gitmo prisoners are  from Yemen. If Obama was sincere today, he might try removing the three-year-old suspension of transfers to that nation. 

Obama might truly be uncomfortable with Gitmo’s existence, which would be a good sign that he’s not a sociopath. But there are people suffering and dying there now. People who have been held without charge for more than a decade. Obama is right that that sort of “justice” doesn’t fit with the ideals of America. And settling this mess is going to be a pain in the ass. But just because you’ve said a lot of serious words about the seriousness of the issue doesn’t get you off the hook when you do nothing.

A truly moral person — an absurd concept for a leader — wouldn’t let his own party, or a contentious Congress stand in his way. Even if that meant political ruin. Obama hasn’t done that. And besides, indefinite detainment isn’t going anywhere anyway. As Mother Jones noted back in November:

Experts from both sides of the aisle do agree that when Obama talks about closing Guantanamo, he’s not talking about ending the practice of indefinitely detaining terrorist suspects without trial. Instead, he’s talking about what to do with the prisoners already in US custody, whose future is uncertain.

Obama should (but probably won’t) act before this hunger strike proves fatal for scores of men. But even if Gitmo goes, Obama will continue doing what he does best — playing a shell game with the powers Bush, and 42 other presidents, claimed before him, and acting like they’re gone, when they’ve simply been moved around. And since it’s legislative, judicial, and executive powers combining to let this human rights debacle continue, Gitmo will probably end up just a small speck of dust on Obama’s legacy. Spread the blame around enough, and nothing gets done, and it’s nobody’s fault.

The Inevitability of Drones in the US and Abroad


Drones are the weapon of choice for fighting undeclared wars all over the Middle East. Surveillance drones are on the cusp of becoming that for U.S. government and law enforcement officials as they continue their efforts to observe everyone as much as and as often as possible.

Today Real Clear Politics (RCP) has an article titled “Drones: Coming to a Sky Near You” and if that headline looks familiar, it’s because this is a familiar fear. Last year the FAA decided that by 2015, it must complete its guidelines on the integration of drones into U.S. airspace. Since that announcement, publications from The Miami Herald to Time have sounded a cautious alarm about the prospect of thousands of drones filling American skies by 2020. There seems to be a new article every day, lately none of them offering much beyond a restrained paranoia; a look at the State of the Union in terms of drones.

But maybe paranoia has done some good. RCP takes a look at recent push-back from various state bodies, including the Massachusetts legislature, noting that:

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 states are considering laws that would restrict drones. Virginia in February imposed a two-year moratorium on drone aircraft. Idaho this month passed a law prohibiting spying by drones without the consent of the persons being spied upon. Idaho state Sen. Chuck Winder (R), the bill’s author, said the measure was intended to “prevent high-tech window peeping.”

On the other hand, 39 states have also put their names into the federal hat to compete to be one of six states that will test integration of these unmanned  aerial vehicles into American airspace.

Last week the mayor of Boston suggested using drones for surveillance at next year’s marathon. This isn’t surprising, as the government is always fighting the last terrorist attack. No matter how unlikely there is to be another incident at any marathon, especially Boston’s; drones cruising above the runners in 2014 is one way to combine looking like you’re doing something, furthering a precedent for normalized, intrusive behavior, and making the burgeoning drone industry — which, by one estimate, may become a $90 billion one in the next decade — very happy. The reaction to the militarized police presence in Boston after the bombing has been mixed. Today former congressman Ron Paul suggested that the city-wide lockdown, the invasive searches and police presence should “frighten us as much or more than the attack itself.” But many people, especially in Boston, were just fine with cops that looked like soldiers patrolling the streets of an American city.

The RCP article also notes that the Department of Homeland Security — serving as the umbrella that covers both war and police issues and helps make them troublingly indistinguishable –will be offering grants to police departments in order to ease purchase of their own drones. No doubt this will prove irresistible to police departments. DHS has already played a generous part in the militarization of police in the last ten years with its grants for Bearcat armored vehicles and other SWAT-ready tech.

The power of drones abroad is obviously a more frightening animal. Today The Atlantic published an article headlined “Living in Terror Under a Drone-Filled Sky in Yemen”. If that exploration of the psychological (and physical) toll that the drone war puts on civilians looks familiar, perhaps you caught the recent study of the grim effects 24/7 hovering death-robots have on the collective psyche of Pakistani people. Drone use abroad continues to be supported by the majority of adult Americans, however.

The proliferation of drones will not long be an American issue alone. “The number of countries that have acquired or developed drones expanded to more than 75, up from about 40 in 2005, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress,” USA Today reported in January.

In spite of some heartening legislative attempts to rein in drones here at home, as well as protests over their international use, they cannot be fully put back into the box. That’s why endlessly rehashing the concerns that are fundamentally tied in with this technology is a good thing to do, even if it brings up a sense of Deja Vu for anyone even halfway paying attention. The RCP article contains no breaking news about drones, but the moment that such articles disappear, we’re in real trouble. That’s when drones have been fully accepted as the most efficient killing machines abroad, and the ideal mechanisms for surveillance at home.