Flickr image courtesy OregonDOT

So we were initially calling our weekly roundup of security stories on the web “Link Analysis,” a reference to government data mining. But that name faced some internal resistance from folks who worried it was a little too obscure. They won out, as you can tell, and we’re now calling it “Security Digest,” which sounds very public media.

I wanted to call our homeland security blog “Age of Peril,” but I lost that one, too, and we ended up with “Elevated Risk.” So if you’ve got better ideas, at least for our weekly roundup, let us know by tweeting @GWSchulzCIR. For now, on to our list of security stories that matter.

The release of a new book condemning the explosion of police SWAT teams in the United States couldn’t have come at a more interesting time. We’ve been following one story for some time now that raises numerous questions about the excessive use of special weapons and tactics units in police departments big and small across the country.

The recently departed police chief of Detroit used such a team for everyday law enforcement activities hoping it might have more of a direct impact on the city’s notorious crime rate. But the unit eventually attracted ugly headlines when police accidentally killed a small girl last May during a botched house raid witnessed by the producers of a reality television show. That led to bitter criticism from the public about whether the chief’s “paramilitary” tactics were going too far.

How does this story intersect with homeland security? Local communities have used the billions in antiterrorism and preparedness grants Congress began handing out after Sept. 11 to outfit SWAT teams with everything from night-vision binoculars and bullet-proof entry shields to armored trucks and apparel that gives law enforcement the look of an Army infantry division.


Flickr image courtesy lakelandlocal

In “SWAT Madness and the Militarization of the American Police,” one-time FBI agent Jim Fisher argues that the elite forces are growing out of control. Now a retired professor from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, Fisher told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sept. 23:

Today, it’s hard to differentiate between a police officer and someone fighting in Afghanistan. They act the same, are trained by the same people, and they have the same mind-set at a time when violent crime is low. … It’s overkill.

The Congressional Research Service released a hefty report Sept. 20 describing the instances of homegrown jihadist terrorism (attempted or otherwise) that have occurred since Sept. 11 and examines how Americans become violent radicals here and abroad. A useful appendix lists each of the cases in considerable detail.

There’s Omar Hammami of Alabama, for example, indicted this past August for supporting a foreign terrorist organization after he allegedly helped teach urban warfare to recruits. Then there’s the case of six men arrested during 2007 for a purported plan to kill soldiers with rifles and grenades at Fort Dix in New Jersey. An investigation of them began when a Circuit City clerk reported that two men dropped off a tape for conversion to DVD that featured “the defendants firing rifles and shouting Islamic battle cries.”

CRS reports aren’t technically available to the public, but groups like the Federation of American Scientists have long succeeded through various means in making them accessible. At times they can be the most valuable yet simple assessments of public policy around.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed the subject of homegrown terrorism during a Senate hearing Sept. 22 stating that some two dozen Americans have been arrested since 2009 and accused of terror-related activities:

While it is not clear if this represents an actual increase in violent radicalization, versus a rise in mobilization of previously radicalized individuals, it is nonetheless evident that over the past 12 months, efforts by violent extremist groups and movements to communicate with and recruit individuals within the United States have intensified.

The ACLU of Illinois is asking a judge to intervene and force the Illinois State Police to release records that describe how a local intelligence fusion center operates. The group first submitted an open-government request in September of 2008 seeking the Illinois Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center’s policies for protecting privacy rights. They also asked for information about the center’s use of databases containing potentially sensitive personal information. But officials have allegedly failed to comply with the request.

News of the lawsuit comes shortly after Pennsylvania residents learned that authorities there were collecting information about harmless political groups including anti-war activists, gay and lesbian organizations and environmentalists. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has apologized for the spying.

Federal judges are still struggling to figure out what their position is on police attaching GPS devices to the cars of suspects for tracking their whereabouts without a warrant, according to Wired’s Threat Level blog. Three federal circuit courts have already determined that the warrants aren’t necessary.

But an appeals court in Washington, D.C. has a different opinion and last month nullified the conviction of an alleged drug dealer whose vehicle was followed electronically. Judges there argued that using the technology without a warrant violated the man’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Justice Department under Obama is challenging that position arguing that drivers have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public.

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.