Last night's Frontline featured a 20 minute segment by WaPo reporter Dana Priest on America's growing "Terrorism-Industrial Complex." It was fascinating...no one knows how much it cost to build this massive, spying apparatus, nor do we know how much it costs to keep it going year after year (national security expenditures are off the books).
The report exposed the "fusion centers" which act as local clearinghouses for the Department of Homeland Security. Basically, if local law enforcement files a "SAR: Suspicious Activity Report" on someone, they dump this data on the local fusion center (Georgia's is located in Atlanta) which then reports the information to DHS HQ in D.C.
This massive data base on "suspicious" persons is then disseminated to federal agencies in order to "connect the dots" and see if plots are forming, etc.
The problem is, as Priest notes in the segment, what exactly is "suspicious" activity? If you peruse the Frontline website, they have culled from local law enforcement agencies around the country some of the "suspicious" activities a citizen can engage in which can lead to a SAR being filed.
Some of these are the obvious:
"Showing unusual interest in utilities, government buildings, historic buildings or similar infrastructure. Pay particular attention to someone photographing, videotaping, inquiring about security, drawing diagrams or making notes about such facilities."But some...aye carumba.
In Los Angeles, suspicious activity can include "Joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time; Individuals who order food at a restaurant and leave before the food arrives or who order without eating; and Individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular telephones."LOL. Wouldn't that make everyone in L.A. (or the entire country, for that matter) "suspicious"?
In Texas, suspicious activity includes "Strange odors coming from a house or building." In Maryland, it's people "who display excessive sweating, mumbling to oneself or displaying an unusually calm or detached demeanor." And in Kentucky, it's everything from "people avoiding eye contact," to being "over dressed for the weather."The point being: suspicious activity is more than just subjective; it's downright absurd in many cases. And yet, all it takes is the conclusion of one beat cop, to file one SAR, and boom, you're in the Federal database on a terrorist watch (the best part of the clip last night was the two nuns who ended up branded "suspected terrorists" by DHS because of their participation in an anti-war rally).
To answer the question "Are We Safer," the answer is no. As Priest documents, most terror-related attempts stopped in the U.S. since 9/11 (from the Times Square bomber to last year's Christmas Day bomber attempt) had nothing to do with DHS or its massive data collection. Wanna bet Tuscon shooter Jared Lee Loughner wasn't on there since that wasn't "officially" terrorism?
Anyway, in case you've been jabbering on your cellphone too much lately, or ordered a meal at a restaurant you later sent back, you can write the DHS directly and find out if you've ended up on the terror list.
But I'm guessing that's probably not a good idea.