from the mind-on-his-money-and-his-money-on-his-mind dept
The currently ongoing International Association of Chiefs of Police has, so far, seen law enforcement officials exhibit a new found wariness of rolling out invasive surveillance technology in the wake of the NSA leaks. This sort of caution and concern has sadly been missing up until now. The generally accepted practice has been to roll out surveillance programs quickly, with little in the way of oversight or privacy protections, and deal with the fallout later.
As I expressed in the previous post, I was concerned if this would change following appearances by James Comey, the new director of the FBI, and Attorney General Eric Holder, neither of which have a history of prioritizing Americans' civil liberties.
Comey has made his appearance, but rather than attempt to "calm" the suddenly rational voices of law enforcement, he took this opportunity to complain about the FBI's budget woes, something he's done pretty much nonstop since he took the position.
At a time when FBI agents play a larger role than ever fighting violent crime and terrorism, they are facing potentially devastating cuts because of congressional budget slashing.This CBS report claims this is the "first time" Comey's spoken publicly about the FBI's money problem, but Reuters quotes him as speaking to "major news outlets" about the same issue back in September, shortly after he took office.
“I’m required to cut 3,500 positions, to cut my operations to the bone, to do things like ration gas money and to stare at the prospect of sending my folks home for an extended period,” FBI Director James Comey said.
The FBI during Mueller's final year made its budget by "looking through the couch cushions," Comey said. With a new government fiscal year set to begin October 1 and Congress not close to passing a budget, "the couch has been turned upside-down," he said...Great! Let's have that discussion.
Comey said he was considering a furlough of 10 days or more for each of the FBI's 36,000 employees. New agent classes at a bureau compound in Quantico, Virginia, stopped within the past few months, he said.
"I'm happy to have a discussion with anyone who thinks I have too many people or too many resources," Comey said.
The FBI, unlike many, many other government agencies (including the DOJ, which oversees it), has had very few budget fiascoes. But this lack of headline-grabbing waste scandals does not mean the FBI is necessarily running a tight ship. Comey claims a loss of projected cut of $800 million (from a budget of $8.1 billion) will result in the slashing of 3,600 jobs. Before he gets to the point of handing out pink slips, he may want to take a look at some areas where money's being wasted.
The DOJ has plenty of questionable expenditures, including the overuse of private jets and a love for expensive conferences, both of which resulted in $61 million of arguably wasted funds. As the FBI is a department of the DOJ, it would probably benefit from some belt-tightening further up the ladder.
The FBI, like millions of people around the world, is easily flattered. For no apparent reason other than the possibility of rubbing elbows with stars, the FBI funds a "Hollywood division" that provides consultation and free use of FBI facilities to TV and movie producers. This $1.5 million expenditure isn't much more than a couple of atoms of the drop in the bucket, considering the agency's $8 billion budget, but it seems to be set up in the most ingratiatingly backwards way. Shouldn't studios be paying the FBI for its expertise and facilities, rather than allowing taxpayers to pick up the tab? Just something to consider, Comey.
After Comey's first statements on the agency's budget woes, the ACLU made some suggestions of its own. Why not eliminate some programs that rank high on the busywork scale but low on actual results? Bonus: fewer civil liberties violations and their attendant lawsuits. In addition to the questionable profiling performed under its "Domain Management" programs, there's plenty of waste to be found in other intelligence gathering/investigative programs.
Modifications to guidelines governing the FBI's domestic operations in 2008 gave it the leeway to perform "assessment," i.e. intrusive investigations targeted at persons without any suspicion of illegal activity or threats to national security.
In the two years from March of 2009 to March 2011, the FBI opened more than 82,000 of these assessments of people and groups without a factual basis to suspect wrongdoing. Only 3,315 of these assessments found information sufficient to justify further investigation.Not only was the hit rate insignificant (and hardly enough to justify the opening of 82,000 assessments), but the FBI is still holding onto the data collected on the 78,000 targets it was unable to find any reason to continue investigating.
The Suspicious Activity Reporting program is also a failure, although the FBI notes that the thousands of "tips" it receives a year justify continued funding. (It glosses over the fact that the SAR system is nearly as worthless as its "assessments.")
The ACLU of Northern California recently obtained hundreds of SARs from California, including many that were entered into eGuardian, which clearly show people are targeted based on racial and religious characteristics and First Amendment-protected activity like photography. The Government Accountability Office criticized the federal government's SAR programs for failing to establish metrics to determine whether they actually improve security. Any program that violates rights and doesn't improve security should be closed immediately.On top of that, there's the Fusion Centers the FBI works with. Although these are technically a DHS line item, any money being spent collaborating with (or withholding information from[?]) entities a Congressional investigation called "wasteful," "useless" and "possibly fraudulent" is money better spent elsewhere.
So, there's some more areas where money could be saved, or at the very least, diverted to investigative activities with better success rates (and, of course, fewer instances of civil liberties violations).
But even without cutting back a single program, there's something to be said for cutting staff. While unpleasant for those on the receiving end of pink slips, the fact is that the FBI's budget has more than doubled since 2001 ($3.2 billion to $8.1 billion). It has also added nearly 7,000 positions over that same period. The FBI goes on at length about its counterterrorism work but there's little hard evidence to support the theory that the terrorist threat has expanded at the same rate as its budget. But this discrepancy between budget and staff indicates the issue isn't too many employees.
When Comey talks about cutting staff, he's not looking at the real problem. An agency that's ballooned to twice its size budget-wise in 12 years without coming anywhere close to doubling its staff is likely sitting on a ton of redundant systems and inefficient processes. If the agency was truly stretched, it would be adding more agents rather than more initiatives and sketchy surveillance programs.
Let's not forget that the agency has twice blown a significant amount of money on updating its computer system. It gave $600 million to SAIC (the contractors behind Oakland's new Orwellian surveillance system), which managed to cobble together a spectacular failure over a five-year period, one so terrible it was scrapped immediately. The job was handed off to a new contractor and given a $400 million budget and a four-year window back in 2006. That system finally went fully live in August of 2012.
This is the FBI director's response to a 10% budget cut. He makes it sound as though the agency will fade quietly out of existence unless given more money than it was given the year before, and he obviously expects this to continue in perpetuity. If he believes a $800 million haircut (relatively-speaking) will make the agency resort to "looking through the couch cushions" in order to fund its work, then it's hardly a surprise it's asking for $270,000 to fulfill an FOIA request. Hard times mean looking for new revenue streams.