Flickr image courtesy Mark Pritchard

Investigators from the FBI want to know more about the foul odor emanating from a massive $45 million network of surveillance cameras in Chicago paid for with federal homeland security grants. Auditors were already examining the high-tech system known as Project Shield begun in 2004, and according to the Chicago Sun-Times, they found something “that sparked the FBI’s interest.”

Cook County officials have requested another $5 million for the project, but it was originally supposed to be finished by 2008 and cost much less: $31.5 million. Project Shield is now behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The equipment has also reportedly been plagued by technical problems. That and other issues have led some cities in the area not to take part in the joint effort.

A lawsuit filed last year alleges that a company one local official had a relationship with benefitted from the millions in federal preparedness grants he was responsible for helping to dole out. From an earlier Sun-Times story:

Project Shield was born out of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Federal grant money started pouring into Illinois to outfit suburban police cars with state-of-the-art cameras to feed live video back to a central command in times of an emergency. First responders would have eyes on the ground.

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Despite a brief outcry last Thanksgiving over the use of revealing, full-body scanners at airports, federal officials are moving forward with the purchase of nearly 300 more costing $77 million, or $280,000 each. That would bring the total deployed at airports nationwide to 1,275.

The Transportation Security Administration is testing software it says would enhance privacy for travelers by generating a cartoon-like outline of the individual scanned instead of a more intimate X-ray image.

According to the Homeland Security Newswire:

The DHS budget request also includes increased funding for behavioral detection officers at airports, who are trained to detect abnormal behavior in passengers before they arrive at checkpoints. The program will receive $237 million [for expansion] at large U.S. airports and [be extended] to some smaller airports. The expansion of the program comes despite a report released by the Government Accountability Office last year that called into question the efficacy of the program’s operational premise.

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Meanwhile, airport body scanners aren’t always successful at detecting even seemingly simple threats. That’s what an undercover investigator discovered in Dallas when she slipped her firearm through an X-ray scanner during testing, apparently on more than one occasion. A TSA source in Dallas told the NBC affiliate there that the tests were a “dismal failure.” Federal agents insisted that body scanners do work, “but only if the officers monitoring them are paying attention.”

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The federal government is going to “extraordinary lengths” in order to hide its relationship with a California computer programmer who promised that his whiz-bang technology could catch terrorists. After spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money, it appears those promises were a hoax.

New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau tell the story of Michael Montgomery, called a “con man” by his former lawyer. Montgomery’s patented software led to an international false alarm in 2003 that included an order by President Bush for airliners over the Atlantic Ocean to head back.

Justice Department officials have twice obtained protective orders shielding the government’s relationship with Montgomery from public view citing possible threats to national security. Sources interviewed by Lichtblau and Risen say the federal government is simply trying to avoid public embarrassment:

A onetime biomedical technician with a penchant for gambling, Mr. Montgomery is at the center of a tale that features terrorism scares, secret White House briefings, backing from prominent Republicans, backdoor deal-making and fantastic-sounding computer technology. … The software led to dead ends in connection with a 2006 terrorism plot in Britain. And they were used by counterterrorism officials to respond to a bogus Somali terrorism plot on the day of President Obama’s inauguration, according to previously undisclosed documents.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.