Lindsey Needham currently works for an election reform nonprofit and resides in Washington, DC. In addition to her activities with BORDC, she is an advocate for gender equality and secular humanism. Lindsey studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
On Tuesday, the Senate held the first hearing on racial profiling since 2001—the same year that President George W. Bush declared that racial profiling is “wrong, and we will end it in America.” Not only has the promise to end racial profiling remained unfulfilled, but the course has grown more difficult over the past decade. African Americans have long been disproportionately stopped by police, and now local and federal agencies have increasingly targeted Latino and Muslim Americans. Law enforcement agencies have insisted that many of these polices are a means to achieve public safety, but many experts have proven otherwise.
Several members of Congress testified at the hearing about the broadening scope of racial profiling. Representative Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, described the effects of the post-9/11 racial profiling on Asian and Muslim Americans:
We recently listened to the anguished testimony of Sikh Americans who were pulled out of lines at airports because of their turbans and made to wait in glass cages like animals on display. They were pulled into rooms to be interrogated for hours, and even infants were searched. This has forced Sikh Americans and Muslim Americans to change their traveling habits by flying less frequently or removing religious attire just to accommodate these unfairly targeted practices.
Congressman Luis Gutierrez explained that federal programs incentivize local law enforcement to engage in profiling. Thanks to the dangerous and misleadingly named Secure Communities program, local police are tasked with acting as deportation agents, and they will continue to profile so long as the federal government is complicit in deporting those who are detained.
I’m happy when the federal government says, “This is racial profiling, we’re going to fight it.” And they go into the federal court in Arizona, in South Carolina, and in Alabama. But until we tell the local officials, “If you continue your serial profiling, we are not going to deport those people,” they’re going to continue to do it. It just incentivizes.
Ronald Davis, chief of police in East Palo Alto, CA, made it clear that racial profiling is an ineffective policing tool. His city having one of the highest crime rates in the country, Chief Davis was forced to respond with one of two strategies: ramping up racial profiling practices or strengthening relationships between the police and communities. Chief Davis chose the latter, and the recidivism rate dropped from 60 percent to 20 percent in just three years. Not only has Chief Davis seen the effects of racial profiling from the side of law enforcement, but he also has been personally affected by racial profiling:
As a black man with a 14-year-old son, Glenn, I know that when I teach him how to drive a car I must also teach him what to do when stopped by the police—a mandatory course for young men of color. I must also prepare him for the bias he is likely to face and the reality that, despite the strength of his character or his contributions to society, there will be those who will attach criminality to him simply because of the color of his skin, and do so under the veil of national security.
Some of the hearing’s participants, particularly Senator Lindsey Graham, still believe that racial profiling is necessary to ensure national security. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, along with hundreds of others, submitted written testimony proving that this presumption is unfounded. While this hearing is long overdue, such resistance demonstrates that further discussion is needed.
After prompting by the American Civil Liberties Union and nearly two dozen other groups, a Michigan women’s prison has agreed to abandon the practice of routine body cavity searches. Female prisoners had been subject to unreasonable inspections of their genitals, sometimes on a daily basis, even when there was no suspicion that contraband had been concealed.
Often, these searches took place under unsanitary conditions and in the presence of other prisoners. Occasions warranting these invasive searches included visits with family and the end of a work shift. After two years of the program, there was not a single occurrence in which guards found contraband. A staff attorney with the ACLU argued, “There is no logical reason for these searches, so the only conclusion we can come to is that they are designed only to humiliate and degrade these women.”
These searches present a clear violation of human rights, but many women were subjected to greater harm, as they were forced to relive past experiences with sexual abuse. Mental health experts estimate that 80 percent of women prisoners were victims of domestic violence or physical abuse prior to incarceration. By forcing many of these women to endure these unnecessary and invasive searches, the prison has caused undue stress. One prisoner gave this tragic account:
For me, this is very similar to the acts that I was forced to perform as a child. Touching myself in front of someone is a very painful and personal issue… I feel as though I am being raped every time I have a visit and this is done to me, yet I endure to have a relationship with my daughters and grandchildren. I should not have to choose my dignity or a relationship with my family.
This victory comes shortly after a devastating blow to civil liberties, brought about by the Supreme Court’s decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders. The Court ruled that individuals detained for any reason, no matter how minimal or unjustified, can be subjected to strip searches, even without suspicion of concealed contraband.
In spite of the Supreme Court’s ruling to preserve unnecessary searches, the Michigan Department of Corrections has agreed to end its routine strip search procedures. Rather than carry out invasive searches on a regular basis, guards will only conduct a search when there is reason to suspect a prisoner has contraband.
Nearly seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast, ravaging the city of New Orleans. But even as the floods wreaked havoc on the physical landscape, law enforcement officers did their own damage—to civil rights. Peering further into these events, it becomes clear that many officials preyed on the city’s most vulnerable, particularly racial minorities, during this time of need. Yet efforts for accountability have remained sluggish.
Earlier this month, a federal judge sentenced five former officers of the New Orleans Police Department to lengthy prison sentences for their role in the Danziger Bridge shootings and the ensuing coverup. Days after Hurricane Katrina, police were called to the bridge after hearing gun shots in the area. When several officers arrived on the scene, they opened fire on an unarmed family, killing two and wounding four others. And in an effort to cover up the shooting, police arrested Lance Madison, whose mentally disabled brother was killed by the cops, for shooting at the officers. Cops also planted a gun and falsified reports.
During the sentencing phase, US District Judge Kurt Engelhardt delivered a blistering diatribe to federal prosecutors, who had doled out lesser charges to cops comparably involved in the coverup. The harshest sentence amounts to 65 years, but other cops were able to cut deals with prosecutors and receive sentences of less than ten years. Engelhardt voiced concern over the credibility of the witnesses, when rather lenient plea deals were offered in exchange for incriminating testimony. Engelhardt remarked, “These through-the-looking-glass plea deals that tied the hands of this court … are an affront to the court and a disservice to the community.”
While it took an inordinate amount of time to hold these officers accountable, family members in this case uncharacteristically witnessed the criminal justice system work on their behalf—a right not granted to others post-Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, a band of white vigilantes took to the streets with guns and ruthlessly killed at least 11 African Americans. The NOPD only investigated three suspicious deaths, which were high profile cases involving police officers. Lance Hill of Tulane’s Southern Institute for Education and Research offers,
By and large, I think the white mentality is that these people are exempt—that even if they committed these crimes, they’re really exempt from any kind of legal repercussion. It’s sad to say, but I think that if any of these cases went to trial, and none of them have, I can’t see a white person being convicted of any kind of crime against an African-American during that period.
African Americans were not the only group to suffer from this civil rights meltdown. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans building contractor and Syrian native, was regarded as a hero for saving people when the hurricane struck. But days after Katrina, his house was raided by the National Guard, who apprehended him and sent him to a makeshift detention center for being a “terrorist.” Zeitoun was incarcerated for almost a month, but all charges were later dropped. The detention center housed approximately 1,200 people during this period and withheld their right to habeas corpus. While Zeitoun is Muslim, almost all of the detainees were African American.
As the levees crumbled under the weight of the floodwater, so too did the criminal justice system. A few cops have been held accountable for these tragedies, but the quest for justice must not stop there.
The New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk procedures are often associated with racially based harassment on the streets of New York City. A federal lawsuit against the NYPD’s “Clean Halls” program, however, reveals that officers’ invasive tactics have extended from the streets and into homes. Plaintiffs in the suit maintain that officers regularly stop and search residents of private apartment buildings without justification, targeting buildings predominantly populated by blacks and Latinos.
Operation Clean Halls was begun in 1991 to address growing crime throughout the city by making it easier for law enforcement to enter apartment buildings in crime-ridden areas. Landlords entering into this agreement grant officers access inside of their buildings to arrest anyone engaged in criminal activity, but the NYPD has given itself the broader permission to stop and search everyone.
As the lawsuit suggests, NYPD officers are not using this authority within the bounds of the Constitution. Police can demand identification of anyone in these buildings whom they deem suspicious. Failure to produce documents or convince police that one is rightfully occupying that space may result in a search and arrest.
In 2011, a record-setting 700,000 people were stopped and questioned as part of the program, but just 7.5 percent of the stops warranted an arrest. Blacks and Latinos make up 87 percent of those stopped and 94 percent of arrests under this program. Such disparities mirror numbers of the street-level stop-and-frisk program.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, in response to the lawsuit, claims that the Clean Halls program offers these tenants a level of safety equal to that of buildings with a paid doorman. While the commissioner views this controversial program as a “service,” residents have a different view.
Some tenants report fear of harassment each and every time they leave their apartment. Others note they no longer have visitors because friends and family members do not wish to subject themselves to such intrusions. Fawn Gracy, a resident of a Clean Halls building in the Bronx, has seen her sons victimized by this program on many occasions:
I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched police throw my son and his friends up against the wall and I have to run downstairs and just keep running and running, stopping them from harassing these kids who are just sitting in their own courtyard where they live at.
According to Juan Cartagena of the Latino Justice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, landlords’ rights cannot supersede the rights of residents. Cartagena explains,
We’re not pitting landlords’ rights versus tenants’ rights, we’re pitting tenants’ rights versus NYPD. Because even if the landlord were to tell the police department, ‘Please help me stop crime in my building,’ that doesn’t give police carte blanche to stop every person who walks in the building, out of the building. No individualized suspicion
While it is clearly wrong to single out and harass individuals on the basis of race, these policies will negatively impact the effectiveness of law enforcement in the long run. For many young men of color, this Clean Halls program will be their first experience with law enforcement. To stop, question, and harass individuals for merely sitting outside of their own homes is no way to build a relationship with members of these communities. One young plaintiff in the case recounts his experiences with the police:
To know that there’s cops around, you’re supposed to feel safe. But now when you’re walking to your house, and you’re not looking back behind your back to see if somebody is going to rob or steal from you, you’re looking for a cop. How you live like that?
Operation Clean Halls is not the first program to target racial minorities and violate civil rights. Rather, this program fits into a longstanding pattern of flagrant abuses by the NYPD. In a recent Truthoutarticle, Shahid Buttar of BORDC astutely inquires, “The real question, which no one is poised to answer, is: what other skeletons lurk in the NYPD’s closet?”
A federal lawsuit has charged the CIA with refusing to comply with requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), contending that the agency has repeatedly cited an exemption it does not have the authority to use.
Over the years, government watchdogs have requested records relating to the CIA’s treatment of detainees and policies related to the “war on terror,” but the CIA withheld many of these documents by invoking a (b)(3) exemption. One of seven FOIA exemptions, the (b)(3) exemption allows an agency’s director to refuse disclosure of documents to protect “intelligence sources and methods.”
When Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act back in 2004, the authority of protecting intelligence sources and methods shifted from the Director of the CIA to the newly created Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). In other words, the ODNI (not the CIA) is in charge of invoking the (b)(3) exemption and has been for eight years. Interestingly, it appears that the CIA has only once received authorization from the ODNI to cite (b)(3), indicating that many uses of this exemption were purely illegitimate.
Such disregard for the law is not a first for the CIA. In spite of a well-established law that prohibits the agency from spying here in the US, the CIA trained the New York Police Department to carry out targeted surveillance of Muslims. An internal “review” later found no violation of law.
Kel McClanahan, executive director of the law firm filing the suit, suggests that the CIA’s actions follow a pattern of defiance:
As important as protecting intelligence sources and methods is, you’d think that someone would have wanted to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s to make sure that they stayed protected after the authority to do so changed hands. Or perhaps the CIA just decided to keep on doing what it had always done, expecting that nobody would notice the difference and call them out on it.
It appears that the deeper we delve into the CIA’s actions, the more questions we find. But somehow the CIA keeps finding a way to cover up its tracks.
You might not have known about a mammoth compound being built deep in the desert of Utah. But when construction is complete in 2013, this data center will know everything about you. Under control by the National Security Agency (NSA), this $2 billion complex will have a copy of every piece of your daily communication—from personal emails to parking receipts to entire cell phone calls.
Intelligence expert and bestselling author James Bamford broke the story about the surveillance facility in Wired last month. According to top intelligence officials, this data center will not only be home to all wiretapped communications; it will also hold the world’s largest supercomputer, which is needed to break codes for heavily encrypted personal data.
The construction of this data center should come as little surprise, given the NSA’s persistence to establish a domestic spying program. During the Bush administration, the NSA violated federal law by secretly carrying out warrantless wiretapping. William Binney, a former NSA official, explains that the agency monitored AT&T’s satellite dishes and installed 10-20 wiretapping rooms all over the country to gain access to international and domestic telecommunications.
Although NSA’s actions were exposed and many of its wiretapping practices made illegal under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, Binney asserts that the program was much larger than publicly known. The NSA was not just intercepting calls; they had software that scours emails for targeted individuals’ locations and phone numbers. Any content deemed suspicious would warrant placement on watch lists, and all subsequent communication would be recorded and sent to the NSA for analysis. Before leaving the NSA, Binney had attempted to bring about a new system, which the courts could approve, but officials weren’t interested in limiting their capabilities.
“They violated the Constitution setting it up,” [Binney] says bluntly. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.”
Given the magnitude of this construction project and the accusations of widespread intrusion of privacy, it is bizarre that the federal government has stayed so silent on such an undertaking. In response to many of the rumors surrounding the new facility, an NSA information officer failed to answer any concerns or explain the NSA’s intent:
Many allegations have been made about the planned activities of the Utah Data Center. What it will be is a state-of-the-art facility designed to support the Intelligence Community’s efforts to further strengthen and protect the nation.
Rather than use the same old national security defense, which has been used to excuse blatantly illegal activities, the federal government needs to start giving real answers.
In the midst of Sunshine Week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report card that assessed 100 different federal agencies on their ability to track and respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. The committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, concluded that the administration has made progress in responding to more requests, but many agencies fail to keep track of the most basic information.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives Americans the right to obtain records from federal agencies, permitted the requested information is not protected by special exemptions. Since it was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, the statute has increased transparency and raised awareness on many government activities. For instance, because of FOIA, we know that the FBI plans to implements a national biometric database and that the Transportation Security Administration disregarded warnings that nude body scanners are invasive and ineffective.
Of the 100 agencies reviewed by the House committee, only 62 provided all of the required information in their FOIA logs, and the rest of the agencies lacked information of varying severity. In fact, three agencies that receive a substantial amount of requests (Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and Department of Justice) each received a D grade. The highest performing agency was the Federal Trade Commission, which got an A+, and the committee gave the Obama administration a C- overall.
News that the Department of Justice, which is in charge of implementing FOIA across the federal agencies, performs so poorly has riled up many government transparency advocates. Last year, the DOJ received the National Security Archive’s Rosemary Award for Worst Open Government Performance (the honor is named after Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon’s secretary, who erased 18 minutes of a Watergate tape).
According to Nate Jones of the Archive,
The Department of Justice – which is responsible for enforcing FOIA government-wide – was supposed to be the change agent and role model for President Obama’s FOIA reforms. But, despite the president’s clear instructions, the DOJ has embraced a ‘FOIA-as-usual mindset’ that has failed to transform the decades-old FOIA policies within its department, much less throughout the government.
The House report card grades agencies on their ability and willingness to provide information to the committee on how they track FOIA requests. This information includes the name of the requester, date of request, description of records sought, date request was closed, and response to request.
That agencies could fail to maintain even such basic records should set off alarms about the federal government’s overall effort toward transparency and accountability. If agencies cannot even hold onto a tracking number, how can we actually expect them to deliver important information to the American public?
The New York Times recently called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to adopt an open-files policy, which would require prosecutors to disclose all files to a criminal defendant well before trial. Though the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland established a constitutional duty to turn over exculpatory evidence to a criminal defendant, many prosecuting attorneys have found a way to weasel around these due process requirements.
For instance, the government must only turn over evidence it deems material, or likely to affect the case’s outcome, but such a standard leaves room for broad, biased interpretation. That the prosecuting attorney, who obviously prefers a certain result in a case, possesses this power is especially reckless. According to the New York Times,
It allows prosecutors to withhold favorable evidence that they deem not to be material, leaving defense lawyers unaware of evidence that may be owed them. Ninety-six percent of federal criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains, so the rule puts defendants at a disadvantage in negotiation: without access to information in the government’s files, they don’t know the evidence they face and can’t assess their odds at trial.
The Justice Department’s power to withhold crucial evidence from the defense is particularly relevant in the post-9/11 era. A report released in 2009 by five inspectors general suggests many terrorism prosecutions were “tainted” by the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
Following the attacks on September 11, President Bush authorized a secret spying program, known as the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP) to intercept communications of individuals affiliated with al-Qaeda. Though the program completely contradicted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which necessitates court approval for wiretapping in the US, John Yoo and other DOJ lawyers cooked up some legal memos rationalizing warrantless surveillance as an unrestricted wartime power.
The PSP was eventually struck down, though Congress later returned many of these surveillance powers to the White House with the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. As part of the bill, Congress requested an oversight report by inspectors general, one from the DOJ, to explain the president’s spying program. Even though the Justice Department found serious flaws in Yoo’s memos justifying the PSP, it is likely that they never delivered this information to defendants. According to a Wired blogger,
The Justice Department [inspector general] found that the program played only a “limited role in the FBI’s overall counterterrorism efforts,” but warned that the information collected by the program could have tainted criminal prosecutions. It recommended that the Justice Department look hard to see if there was information collected by that program that should have been or should be turned over to defendants in terrorism cases.
While it was the White House who completely crossed the line in implementing these illegal spying programs, the DOJ has not been an adequate check on the president’s power or even an advocate of basic justice. Many of these terrorism cases were marred from the start with illegally obtained evidence, but we could ensure fairness if defendants were permitted to see all the files available. The DOJ’s refusal to adopt an open-files policy demonstrates that it is not capable of leading the country in transparency, accountability, or justice.
Jonathan Corbett, a scientist and engineer, recently exposed the inadequacies of the full body scanners used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Not only do these machines invade our privacy, but they fail to detect metallic objects that traditional metal detectors would spot easily. Corbett asserts,
When the machines came out, we were told that the invasion on our privacy, doses of radiation, and trashing of our Constitution were necessary because the old metal detectors weren’t good enough.
So how does one get forbidden objects through these scanners? Sample images show that the scanners produce images of white bodies against a black background. As Corbett points out, metallic objects also turn up as black in these images, meaning they can fade into the background if strategically placed on one’s side.
Corbett put his theory to the test at multiple airports by sewing a side pocket into his shirt and carrying a sizable metal object inside of it. As the video shows, Corbett was able to pass through airport security with his metal object, proving that these invasive machines are not only a waste of money but a major risk to everyone’s security.
Last week, a coalition of policy and religious organizations encouraged every governor in the country to reject an offer by the country’s largest private prison corporation, which had hoped to buy up and privatize more state prisons. The coalition’s letter exposes the privatization of prisons as an unsound investment and lists persistent human rights violations committed by private prisons.
The letter comes as a response to a document uncovered by Huffington Post last month, which revealed backdoor invitations from Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to purchase and operate $250 million worth of corrections facilities. In their offer to take over government-owned prisons, CCA advertised “safe and efficient operations and high quality educational and rehabilitation programming,” as well as millions of dollars in savings and a boost to local economies.
These claims could not be further from the truth, as study after study finds that private prisons do more harm than good. Because private companies are driven by profit, they inherently seek to cut costs at every corner, and this poses a great threat to inmates’ safety. Reports show that private prisons have higher incidence of violence and recidivism, and unacceptable living conditions have been discovered in many of these facilities.
While states might be tempted by the quick cash gained from the purchase, such a deal would be detrimental to taxpayers in the long run. Provisions in CCA’s offer require states to enter a contract of at least 20 years and to maintain a prison population of at least 90 percent of the maximum occupancy rate.
It may seem bizarre that a private corporation could dictate just how many people the state throws into prison, but this effort fits a longstanding pattern by CCA to increase prison populations. As a member of ALEC, a forum for state lawmakers and corporations to write legislation together, CCA has been actively involved in drafting bills that increase prison time for drug offenses and create obstacles to prison alternatives.
This country already incarcerates more people than any other, and measures like this only exacerbate the problem. David Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union declared,
It is unconscionable to line the pockets of private companies whose existence depends on the nation’s addiction to incarceration, a grave social crisis that exacts a huge toll on taxpayers while providing no public safety benefit and leaving a disproportionate number of people of color behind bars. In order to reduce corrections spending, we need to commit to the systemic reform of our criminal justice system.